Reflecting on a Legal Aid Summer
By Emily Isaacs
Prior to attending law school, I spent my days in the long hallways of middle schools in two West Virginia cities, and taught sixth-graders how to recognize dramatic irony, use puns to rival any Dad joke, and write an argumentative essay. As I listened to stories about their dogs, their siblings, and heard “Baby Shark” approximately 84,963,618 times, I quickly came to suspect that a typical and safe childhood was not possible for many of my students, particularly the ones who hopped on the bus every day to come to school from the nearby children’s shelter. My heart certainly ached for the kids who were separated from their families and moved constantly from shelter to foster home and so on, but I was also afraid for the students who I suspected were not getting enough to eat. I wondered about the ones who lived with Grandma, and troubled for the ones who spent more time in detention than they did in class. There were many things I could have done to support these children. I could read their short stories and offer feedback. I could encourage them to devote themselves to their studies. I could act as a shoulder to cry on when something at home or at school had gone wrong. However, there was very little I could do to remove them from the situations they found themselves in and the injustice that was served to them through no fault of their own. And thus, I exchanged my dry-erase marker for a Torts textbook to see what I could do about what happened when these students left my classroom.
My time at Legal Aid has made me realize many of the things I suspected about the conditions of many West Virginia children are true, and in some ways, realize that circumstances can be direr than I ever imagined. I realized that nothing is simple. Moving a child to a new home may seem like the best possible option, but we what we don’t often realize is that children, despite neglect, abuse, or whatever, usually love their parents. Splitting time between Mom and Dad can be difficult, especially when it involves meeting halfway and living in a different city for a little while. And how do the parents feel, watching someone they used to love drive away with their children? What about the grandparents who live for their grandchildren, raise them while the parents get their lives together, only to have them stripped away? This summer has made me realize that a perfect solution almost never exists. It is our job to discover the best solution for everyone involved.
Like many law students, I found myself in a bit of an existential crisis at the conclusion of the spring semester. The cases we read in class seemed abstract and faraway. It was like reading a fantasy novel: flashy, interesting, and a good story but not something that affects the life of average Joe’s. I wondered if this was what being a lawyer truly meant. My summer at Legal Aid re-awakened my interest in the law. The clients we represent are not patients who were promised a perfectly good hand but ended up with a hairy palm. They are the people who you stand behind in line at the post office, or wait tables, or take their children to the river on weekends. This summer allowed me to get to know the people in the community in which I was raised in a new light. I was able to see them navigate through their paperwork at a divorce clinic, listen as they described an altercation with their significant other, and prepare motions on their behalf. I was able to complete a project that examined the changes to SNAP benefits and research programs from other states that could be implemented here and help clients. Legal Aid allowed me to explore many of the avenues that made me want to become an attorney to begin with. I would be proud to work with this organization again someday.
Emily Isaacs is a Rising 2L at the WVU School of Law. She spent her 2019 summer in the Lewisburg office of Legal Aid of West Virginia.