For my STEP Signature Project I interned at the Legal Aid Society of Columbus. I assisted the firm in handling client processing client information and other administrative tasks. Specifically, I worked with the bankruptcy team helping process clients for probono bankruptcy referral. This involved contacting clients and helping them gather the documents that are required to declare bankruptcy. This process would take anywhere from a week to a month, depending upon a client’s situation. I was extremely rewarding and engaging work. It showed me a completely new vantage of the Columbus community, particularly the portion of the community that lives in poverty.
I find that most people in their lives rarely leave their economic bubbles. Sure, some people volunteer their time here and abroad but these are more often than not more sightseeing trips than anything else. This is not to say that mission trips and brief volunteer efforts aren’t beneficial. They can often impact the communities and people that are their focus greatly. However, they rarely give their participants an insight into what it is like to live in true poverty. In fact, even it seems to give people the impression that they must travel to find poverty in the world. This is simply not true. Poverty exists in every part of the world. My internship at the Legal Aid Society of Columbus proved this to me. I spent every day of the summer working with people who live in the same neighborhoods as OSU students, yet can barely make ends meet. This opened my eyes to the intense struggle of those who live in poverty in my own community and has inspired me to devote the rest of my life fighting this poverty.
In addition to showing me the poverty that exists in the Columbus community my internship also showed me one of its biggest causes, predatory lending. Some will argue that predatory lending doesn’t exist, or at least those that do it aren’t really doing anything wrong. However, this is because people don’t understand the situation of the people who take out these loans. They are desperate for money and often don’t have the education and resources available to understand the nature of the loans they are taking out. They walk into a loan office and suddenly they are talked into loans with interest rates that aren’t criminal but should be. These loans keep people in poverty for life, I cannot remember how many clients came through Legal Aid during my time there that had suffered from predatory lending. People were spending often over half their incomes paying off loans that were designed to keep them in debt for life.
Everything I learned about predatory lending I learned firsthand from the clients I worked with. In fact, most of what I learned at Legal Aid I learned from interacting with clients. No client was exactly the same as the other, each had their own set of problems and concerns. As a result, each client challenged me in a new way. For some I would have to look up Ohio housing law. For others, I would have to look into traffic code. This variation in the problems of the clients challenged me and helped me to better understand both the legal system and the challenges faced by those who are not on the good side of it.
The clients at Legal Aid also taught me the challenges faced by those in poverty in our community. They didn’t come to Legal Aid for frivolous reasons. They came because their wages were being garnished to the point that they would starve. Or they came because their landlords hadn’t done repairs in years and they could barely live in their apartments anymore. The severe nature of my client’s problems showed me how different it is to live life from paycheck to paycheck. The slightest inconvenience can push you over the edge. This showed me how important institutions like Legal Aid are that help people who are struggling though poverty.
The staff of Legal Aid also helped to show me how serious poverty is. They showed me this though their dedication to their work and Legal Aid as an institution. One incident in particular showed me how difficult the lives of our clients are and how dedicated the staff of Legal Aid are. There was quite a bit of flooding earlier this week at Legal Aid. The basement carpets were flooded in places and one of the bathrooms was unusable. Yet, despite this the attorneys of Legal Aid sloshed on through and kept working. Their dedication inspired me and showed me the gravity of the world we were doing. How could attorney’s stop for rain when their clients barely have homes to stay out of the rain?
The attorneys and clients at Legal Aid have shown me a great many things about the world and myself. Firstly, it has shown me that there is a huge amount of suffering in the world and I would like to help address it. Secondly, it showed me that in order to be satisfied with my work I need to be able to form personal connections with people. I need to be able to meet the people my work is affecting. Thus, I have begun to look into specializing in a legal field that will allow me to work directly with people, in particular those who are struggling with poverty. This is a huge revelation for me, as I have been struggling with thinking of potential career paths for myself. I credit my internship at the LASC through the STEP program entirely for this revelation.