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Sarah Mateja, 2013 AmeriCorps JD Member: Helping Veterans Re-Enter Civilian Life

Sarah Mateja is a member of the 2013 Equal Justice WorksAmeriCorps JD class. Currently, she is serving Veterans struggling with substance abuse issues at the Allegheny County Veterans Treatment Court.  Sarah, a law student at Duquesne University School of Law, manages the clinical aspect of the court, which divert qualified Veterans from jail to treatment programs. Equal Justice Works interviewed Sarah to learn more about her experiences

Q: What are some challenges that Veterans face when adjusting back into civilian life?

A: We see a lot of Veterans struggle to find employment.The stigma of what it is to be a Veteran ties into many aspects of a Veteran’s life. Many people assume that Veterans possess certain traits because they are a Veteran. For example, they have mental health and physical health problems. Being a Veteran is not an illness. Many had skills that were extremely valued while they were in service but when they come home, their military resume no longer has the same meaning when they enter employment outside of the military.

Q: How do you help your clients graduate from their treatment programs?

A: We have many steps to make sure a client is compliant. Since we have a review process, this motivates the client to achieve 90-day reviews. If a client receives positive reviews, he or she will climb from 30, to 60, to 90-day reviews and then to graduation. Furthermore, our team and student attorneys check in on the Veterans weekly –if not multiple times a week – urging the Veterans to reach out to any team members when they need assistance.

For instance, if a Veteran is on the verge of homelessness, a student attorney can contact a Veteran outreach coordinator to get them in for intake for a bed at a shelter.  We also provide bus passes so that our Veterans do not miss appointments, court, or scheduled meetings. We are also available for emotional support throughout the process. When a Veteran has consistent clean drug screens, one can hear the 'Yes!' throughout the review meeting. We make sure to announce achievements to the court and give them a round of applause. Come graduation time, it is extremely rewarding to hear our Veterans thank us.

Q: How many clients do you currently have at the Allegheny County Veterans Treatment Court? And how many have graduated from the program thus far?

A: Collectively, the law students have about 75 clients right now. I will be expecting between 5-8 new clients in the next few weeks. We have had a total of 27 graduates.

Q: What are the benefits of being an AmeriCorps JD member?

A: The benefit of being an AmeriCorps JD member is working within a large network with the same goals in mind as you. Being the student manager of Veterans’ Court allowed me to be more involved. I chose to work with Veterans because I feel it is my duty to give back to those who allow me to enjoy my everyday freedoms. I am thankful that I am learning practical skills outside the classroom.

This post was originally published in Ms. JD. You can learn more about AmeriCorps JD and other Equal Justice Works programs for law students by clicking here.

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