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JCRED Members Nicholas Oliva ’18, Allison Cabibbo ’19, Janelle James ’19 and Samantha Ojo ’19 Spend Spring Break Helping People in Need

Six months after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, the ccommonwealth is still struggling to recover. Almost 40 percent of the island’s residents were already living below the poverty line when disaster hit and, with Maria’s destruction of the power grid, infrastructure, homes, and livelihoods, many people remain in dire need of aid, including pro bono legal assistance.

Responding to the call for help, a group of St. John’s Law students spent their spring break in Puerto Rico contributing to the post-Maria relief efforts. It was one of four spring break service trips organized by students from the Law School’s Public Interest Center and funded through its annual Public Interest Auction.

Partnering with host organization Ayuda Legal Huracan Maria, the St. John’s volunteers in Puerto Rico took on different assignments. They translated a legal manual for lawyers to use during times of natural disaster; researched disaster relief grants; and examined and reported on services provided by, and funding obtained by, reproductive health clinics after natural disasters. 

“This was one of the best experiences I’ve had in law school,” says Sharlene Disla ’19, who led the St. John’s group that included Christina Borges ’19, John Burger ’20, Yesenia Campiglia ’18, Denise Feliciano ’18, and Nicholas Oliva ’18. “As a Dominican-American, I’ve always been close to the Puerto Rican community because the islands are neighbors, so I was eager to help. There were students on the trip who were visiting the island for the first time, and there was one student of Puerto Rican descent who is a frequent visitor. Regardless, we were all excited to get to work wherever we were needed.” 

With equal enthusiasm, St. John’s Law students Ben Handy ’20, Kristopher Peters ’20, Allyson Rivard ’20, and Janel Rottkamp ’18 traveled to Houston, TX to volunteer with Lone Star Legal Aid, an organization that provides free legal aid to help meet the needs of communities impacted by Hurricane Harvey. While assigned to different departments and projects, most of the students spent time observing in court, which was a highlight of their volunteer experience.

“Going to court was a very valuable learning opportunity for me, even with the amount of time I’ve spent in courtrooms during and before law school,” Rottkamp shares. “There’s a lot that you can learn by comparing differences across jurisdictions, particularly in terms of dynamics between parties and the judges, procedure, demeanor, and strategy.”

Kristopher Peters welcomed the service opportunity. “Doing substantive legal work while giving back to the community so early in my law school career was an extremely rewarding experience,” he says. “I was able to make a positive impact on people’s lives, and made some great memories with the other law students on my trip. I’d definitely do it again.”

While their fellow law students assisted with natural disaster relief efforts, another group from St. John’s Law spent spring break working to alleviate a different kind of humanitarian crisis.

Between 2015 and 2016 alone, over 180,000 families and children were apprehended at southern U.S. border crossings after making the perilous journey from Central America’s Northern Triangle of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Placed in a fast-track deportation process called “expedited removal,” nearly all seek asylum to escape pervasive crime, gang violence, and domestic abuse in their home countries.

Among the detainees are hundreds of women and children housed at the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, TX, a small oil town about 54 miles southeast of San Antonio. That’s where the St. John’s group of Shandy Abraham ’19, Victoria Benalcazar ’20, Jasmine Brown ’19, Allie Cabibbo ’19, Nicole Camacho ’20, and Sara Krastins ’20 offered their help in partnership with with the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES).

“We spent the week working with attorneys and advocates from RAICES’s Karnes Pro Bono Project,” says Cabibbo, who serves on the Public Interest Center’s executive board as director of service trips. “The detained women and children must have a credible or reasonable fear interview to determine if they will be permitted to apply for asylum. We helped them prepare for the interviews by listening to their stories and educating them about the process. It was very sad to learn about the trauma the women and their children have endured, and to consider the dangers they face if they return home. But it was uplifting to use our legal skills to help alleviate some of their suffering.”

For Camacho, the service trip was an incomparable experience for her 1L year. “One of the reasons I came to St. John’s Law was because of its historical commitment to public service, which aligns with my own lifelong commitment to giving back to the community,” she says. “It was very rewarding to witness firsthand the positive impact that our assistance had on our clients, and I appreciate the Public Interest Center and St. John’s for giving me this opportunity.”

As Cabibbo, Camacho Hernandez, and the rest of the group were assisting asylum seekers in Karnes, about 500 miles away, St. John’s Law students Denise Dessel ’19, Antonia Edwards ’19, Tori Harris ’19, Janelle James ’19, Samantha Ojo ’19, and Grace Peters ’20 were helping New Orleans residents in need. The group volunteered in the housing, child in need of care, and medical-legal partnership units at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services (SLLS), Louisiana’s largest civil legal aid organization.

“SLLS’s child in need of care unit represents children who have been neglected or abused by their parents,” Edwards explains. “SLLS creates a case plan for each child to ensure their safety and secure a successful future. I worked with the managing attorney, who has hundreds of case files. I organized the files, created summaries of each case, and identified any future action the attorney needed to take. I also observed family court proceedings and discussed a career in family court with the chief judge. It was a wonderful experience.”

Grace Peters, who volunteered in the child in need of care unit with Edwards, appreciated the opportunity to put her classroom learning into practice after just one semester at St. John’s Law. “I’m very grateful to have had this chance to work hands on in children’s services,” she says, adding: “The service trip allowed me to experience what it’s like to help bridge the justice gap as an attorney. It was inspiring to support St. John’s work for the public good in this way, and the experience reaffirmed my desire to work in the public interest advocating for children.”

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