Southeast Louisiana Legal Services helps people tackle civil legal issues for a stronger, safer, better life.
James Welch is a staff attorney at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, and two days a week he works at a place called Single Stop.
“We have so many students who come in here when they just need a rest, a place to come where no one is snarling at them,” laughs Welch. “Unfortunately, it’s tough. This is like an oasis.”
The oasis is a two room office at Delgado Community College. Welch works there, at Single Stop, on Tuesdays and Fridays. He says, “It’s not unusual to have the whole day filled, and if three people don’t show up, we get four to take their place.”
Single Stop helps Delgado students navigate all sorts of confusing extra-curricular hurdles, like financial counseling, financial aid, budgeting money, and getting set up to receive a tax refund. There are Single Stops at over 100 community colleges in the United States, but this one, in New Orleans, is the only one that has an attorney right there, in house. Which is huge.
The average Delgado Community College student makes about $13,000 a year. About a third work — part or full time — and a third also have one or more children at home. On top of this, they’re going to school; often they’re the first in their families to go to school.
“This is their second shot at life,” says Wlech. “And they might have some serious problems in their background, but they’re moving beyond that. And so I consider my job here is helping people have some success instead of a lot of failures.”
Juggling school, job, and home is hard enough, but if you’re also going through a divorce or a custody case or bankruptcy or possible mortgage foreclosure, disentangling your legal situation can be totally overwhelming and expensive. Welch says helping students through this legal world is huge.
“If you’re trying to study and you’re in a bad marriage or there was domestic violence or something like that, well then having that judgment saying you’re divorced, you’ve got custody, that takes a ten-ton weight off of your shoulders.”
And there are other legal problems that can ruin a student’s professional life. See, Delgado has a strong allied health program. Students train to go into professions like nursing, or to be surgical technicians or pharmacy technicians. If you want to be, say, a nurse or a sheriff’s deputy, you can’t get a license if you have anything on your criminal record. Not even a misdemeanor. Any mistake you made as a kid, in order for it not to ruin your adult future, you need to have it expunged — taken off the public record.
“It’s a formality more than anything else,” says Welch, “But the problem is — and this is often in law — the formality gets is what gets you to the substantive issue, which is your license to practice medicine or nursing or whatever.”
Southeast Louisiana Legal Services helps Delgado students get over this small but very significant legal obstacle. Take this nursing student, who didn’t want us to use her name for confidentiality reasons. She’s a mother, she gets great grades — which you have to, in order to even get in to nursing school — and she didn’t know that a traffic misdemeanor might derail her entire career. She found out once she was already in nursing school.
“I went to my teacher at the time and confided in her,” the nursing student told me. “I said, ‘What am I supposed to do? Am I done with this? Do I have a chance?’ You should go talk to Single Stop, and she gave me the phone number and from there on, they took me under their wing and he was there the whole time. And it meant so much cause I felt like he was in my court. You know, I’m not in alone.”
“What did you pay for these legal services that saved your career life?” I asked.
“Only the court costs. All the filing, the paperwork, the documents was all done for free. I will forever be grateful for Single Stop and Southeast Louisiana Legal Services and what they’ve provided for me as a student as a single mom trying to better myself. I would never have been able to afford the legal services that they provided.”
Southeast Louisiana Legal Services provides free legal aid in 25 parishes.
Written by Eve Abrams for the Community IMPACT Series and produced by WWNO in partnership with the Greater New Orleans Foundation. Learn more about the Southeast Louisiana Legal Services.