Rural Summer Legal Corps Fellow Recounts Her Summer of Service
The Rural Summer Legal Corps (RSLC) is a privately funded initiative that connects law students with legal aid programs in the common pursuit of better addressing the civil legal needs of rural communities. In partnership with Equal Justice Works, LSC selects about thirty of the nation’s most talented and dedicated law students to spend their summers working at LSC-grantee offices across the United States and its territories. Here's 2018 RSLC fellow Emily Guillaume account of her summer working with Legal Aid of West Virginia.
RSLC Service Spotlight
Legal Aid of West Virginia – Lewisburg
“She sold the chickens. The ducks, too,” I sighed as I relayed the message from our client to my supervisor. My supervisor shook her head. “Those were marital property, right?” I asked. My supervisor nodded. “Yep. Along with the llamas. And if she isn’t letting him see the dog, we’ve definitely got a fight coming.”
So goes a typical conversation in an office of legal aid in West Virginia. Divorcing couples bicker over tractors, pigs, and chicken coops. Tenants might complain about gutters filled with snakes or racoon-infested dumpsters. It’s a bit like a reality show—think Judge Judy meets Duck Dynasty. But all kidding aside, my experience helping the underserved in the state has been both rewarding and challenging in not only ways I predicted, but also in ways I never could have imagined.
Allow me to be blunt for a second: By almost every standard measure, West Virginia is poor. The per capita income is $23,450, coming in at 49th nationwide; 17.9% of the population lives in poverty, including almost one quarter of the state’s children. West Virginian’s health is also not doing so well: about 37.7% of adults are obese (the highest in the nation), almost a quarter of adults smoke, and deaths resulting from opioid abuse total nearly 44 per 100,000 in the state (also the highest in the nation).
But there are plenty of aspects, too frequently overlooked, wherein West Virginia is decidedly NOT poor. It is not deprived in beauty—I have had the privilege of traveling to some spectacular places all over the world, including some of the most pristine forests and mountains. None come close to the jaw-dropping, abundant natural beauty of West Virginia. Similarly, it is rich in hospitality. I came to West Virginia for the summer without knowing a soul. Despite their reputation for being skeptical of outsiders, I found West Virginians among the most friendly and gracious I have ever met. I was welcomed into the homes of complete strangers for good food and even better conversation.
Most importantly, West Virginia is not poor in resilience. I saw many clients toughened by years of hard, thankless work, unfortunate life decisions, and crippling poverty, sometimes exacerbated by drug or alcohol abuse. Perhaps some of it was their own doing, but much of it was certainly not. Regardless, many of them found their way to us, ready to get help and start anew. The state itself is also in the midst of reinventing itself—while it’s still infamously known as coal country, many counties are now capitalizing on other natural resources and becoming meccas for outdoor recreation. There’s hope and optimism a plenty. To me, that’s what public interest law is all about: Giving voice to the people and places that are oppressed, silenced, and forgotten and finding creative solutions that help not just them, but all of us.
So yes, there are real problems here. You can find those just about anywhere. But what you can’t find just anywhere are the resources, people, and audacity to fight those problems. Luckily, that’s what I’ve seen here at Legal Aid of West Virginia—an organization dedicated to making things better and finding ways to make the ordinary extraordinary.
So the photo that I believe best emblemizes my time here at LAWV is not a client, but instead a symbol of what I perceive to be the real West Virginia: a little rough around the edges at first glance, but when you look closely, you can see it’s much so much more.