Volunteers take law into their own hands

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
Aaron Shifreen & Barbara Ruben

After retiring from a career in the federal government as a research chemist, Martha Ford-Gladden considered going to law school.

She decided to learn more about the legal profession by volunteering for AARP’s Legal Counsel for the Elderly (LCE) program. While she never ended up pursuing a law career, Ford-Gladden is still volunteering with the legal aid group 20 years later.

Legal Counsel for the Elderly (LCE) offers free legal advice and services to District of Columbia residents 60 and older. Its volunteers consist of both attorneys and those, like Ford-Gladden, without law degrees.

In one of the most memorable cases she assisted with, an older woman discovered she had been swindled out of her income for years by her grandson, who secretly took out loans on her home and credit. When she was about to lose her house, LCE stepped in to help, and she was allowed to remain, while her grandson was ultimately sent to jail.

“I have truly been enlightened,” Ford-Gladden said, “especially when it comes to persons taking advantage of others in areas such as housing or repairs or credit card companies.

“My experience has caused me to really appreciate the needs of people that I was often unaware of, and how people can take advantage of others” without their knowledge, she said. “Oftentimes, people in need don’t even realize there are services available to help them.”

Many helpful programs

LCE provides legal representation in court for those whose income is below 200 percent of the federal poverty level (which comes to $21,780 for a single person; $29,420 for a two-person household).

The organization runs a number of other legal and advocacy programs for older adults as well, including the Senior Medicare Patrol Program, which trains volunteers to spot Medicare fraud, as well as the Long-Term Care Ombudsman program, in which volunteers serve as advocates for residents of assisted living communities and nursing homes.

Volunteers in LCE’s Pro Bono Project help clients with such issues as housing, guardianship, fraud, grandparent caregiving and wills.

“We began 35 years ago,” said Aaron Knight, LCE’s director of development, “creating a model that uses volunteers to work with legal aid attorneys. So it’s in our DNA to use volunteers extensively. And we’re not at a loss for work, unfortunately,”

“We ask that our volunteers make a time commitment of at least five hours a week because we give them such substantive activities,” he said.

Ford-Gladden, who volunteers two days a week, has to take two buses to reach LCE’s downtown Washington office. She says she is happy to make the commitment.

“My volunteerism today is more rewarding than the salary I received when I was in the workforce,” she said. “It makes me feel so much more valued as a person in life, and I feel great that I can get such joy from serving others.”

For her work with LCE, Ford-Gladden received a 2009 MetLife Foundation Older Volunteers Enrich America Award and was recently named a local hero by Bank of America.

Retired attorneys and teachers

Bob Frank, another LCE volunteer, says his greatest passion is the law. He is a retired attorney who specialized in intellectual property and also has a degree in electrical engineering.

Frank found himself floundering in 2007, when his work for a law firm came to an end. “When my contract ended, they told me to retire and go enjoy myself, but I was enjoying myself doing what I was doing,” Frank said.

“On one of my last days at work, I was referred to do some pro bono work with the AARP, and that is how I got involved with Legal Counsel for the Elderly.”

Today, Frank works on housing issues at LCE, dealing with evictions, homelessness and housing code violations.

“When I was a patent attorney, I focused mostly on technical problems. Volunteering with LCE has made me aware of poor, elderly people and their problems.

“Previously I dealt mostly with the well off, but here it’s a whole different group of people. Before working with LCE, I knew these problems existed, but now that I’m dealing with them, my perspective has completely changed,” Frank said.

Natalie Wasserman began volunteering with LCE six years ago, soon after she retired from teaching at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law.

One of Wasserman’s main duties is interviewing clients, mainly those with landlord/tenant issues and grandparents caring for their grandchildren.

“I would recommend volunteering at LCE to others because I think it is a valuable experience, and the work that is provided can allow volunteers to feel like they are really helping people who are vulnerable. That is what volunteer work is supposed to be,” she said.

For more information about volunteering with LCE, see www.aarp.org/lce or call volunteer coordinator Marleise Brosnan at (202) 434-2120.

Aaron Shifreen was an intern with Legal Counsel for the Elderly.