This March, twenty-three Law School students traveled to Biloxi, Mississippi, to participate in Spring Break of Service (SOS), a week-long volunteer opportunity organized by a student group of the same name.
Although officially in its second year, this is the first time the group organized an independent trip. The 2007 trip to New Orleans was coordinated through Habitat for Humanity and included graduate students from multiple programs on campus. For 2008, a core group of SOS members surveyed students on their preferences for service work and researched possible volunteer opportunities involving legal aid.
Ultimately the group chose to work with the Mississippi Center for Justice (MCJ), a nonprofit, public interest law firm. At the firm’s Biloxi office, the Law School students helped respond to the housing-related legal needs of low-income people and communities affected by Hurricane Katrina.
Specific assignments included assisting with intake at two walk-in legal aid clinics, conducting follow-up interviews with victims of contractor fraud, organizing and conducting a parcel-by-parcel inventory of a historically African American community in Gulfport in need of disaster recovery funds, conducting a door-to-door awareness survey regarding a proposed industrial site to be located within a residential community, and researching how Mississippi spends its disaster recovery funds in effort to make the state’s agencies and leaders more accountable and their processes more transparent.
In addition to money raised through student-led fundraising events, contributions from the Law Students Association, the University Community Service Center, and various alumni, law firms, and Law School faculty and staff covered all the participants’ travel costs. Elizabeth Ptacek, ’10, who will be the group’s president for 2008-2009, notes that this year’s fundraising efforts had the added benefit of raising the student community’s awareness of the group, and she anticipates increased participation next spring.
Participants report highly positive experiences in working with the MCJ. As a first-year student, Ptacek was particularly attracted to the service trip because she could gain experience in legal work and also get an idea of whether public interest law should be her focus upon graduation. Says this year’s president, Lindsey Marcus, ’08, “Working with the Center reminded us of why we all went to law school in the first place.”