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Equal Justice at Work: March 2011

Fellows on the Front

AmeriCorps Legal Fellow Serves to Keep D.C. Families in Their Homes

For some low-income homeowners faced with foreclosure, a loan modification could mean the difference between having shelter and becoming homeless. Even though lenders are given incentives to work with homeowners who are behind on their loans, many are not responsive. For the homeowner, pursuing a modification is an arduous process, requiring endless phone calls and piles of paperwork, often resulting in inconsistent and incomplete information. Without legal advice and assistance, frustrated homeowners are left with nowhere to turn.

Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow, Jennifer Ngai, is serving at the Legal Aid Society in D.C. where she is helping low-income D.C. residents who are qualified for a modification, navigate the process. “A lot of my clients belong to a very specific segment of the population. They are the working poor with very low income, where if they lost their house, they would truly be at the very bottom of the poverty level and they could not afford to rent," Jennifer said. "I [also] have clients who have worked all their lives, have very low mortgages and have been living in their homes and paying their mortgages for many years. They defy many of the stereotypes that I think a lot of people have about those who are facing foreclosure.”

Jennifer recently had a case with a client who had lost her job and could no longer afford to make the $500 monthly payments on her home equity loan. Because her husband had a large enough salary, they qualified for a loan modification. However, each time the client tried to move forward with the modification, she received different information. When Jennifer got involved, the family was just a week away from losing their home. With her help, the client was finally able to receive a loan modification that lowered the interest payments to an affordable rate and extended their mortgage term, which allowed them to remain in their home.

Jennifer is one of 30 AmeriCorps Legal Fellows who, in 2009, prevented 1,086 families from losing their homes.


Financing the Future

The College Cost Reduction and Access Act was passed in 2008, but many are still not aware of the impact that this sweeping legislation can have for anyone considering a career in public interest. Read more on our US News & World Report Student Loan Ranger blog.


Alumni News

Equal Justice Works Alumnus, JR LaPlante, Named Secretary of Tribal Relations

On Friday, February 11, Equal Justice Works alumnus JR LaPlante was named South Dakota’s first Secretary of Tribal Relations by Governor Daugaard.

As a 2009 Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow serving with the South Dakota Access to Justice, JR’s focus was on estate planning for Indians. The American Indian Probate Reform Act of 2004 provided forced sales of individual land trusts when an Indian dies intestate (without a will). Due to the lack of estate planning services, this led to the continued dilution of Indian interest in their own land.

JR created an initiative known as the De-Fraction Tour: 40 Wills in 4 Days, taking four other AmeriCorps Legal Fellows and twelve students from the University of South Dakota Law School to Indian reservations throughout South Dakota, crafting wills and performing outreach. The initiative was a huge success, with the group exceeding their goal and drafting 73 wills in 4 days. This week, another group of AmeriCorps Fellows and students are continuing the initiative.

JR currently serves as the chief judge and court administrator for the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe in Ft. Thompson, South Dakota. He was the former administrative officer for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and has an extensive background working for Native American human service organizations.

He expressed his excitement for his new role. "I am excited to work with Gov. Daugaard and our tribal leaders on the issues facing our state," JR said. "This new department is a unique opportunity to bring together leaders from all of South Dakota's governments and build stronger tribal-state relationships."

All of us at Equal Justice Works send our congratulations to JR.


Executive Director’s Corner

Eighteen years ago, Equal Justice Works received its first grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) to fund a fellowship program that would improve access to justice for low-income and underserved communities. Today, the Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellowship program is one of the most productive in the country. This year we have placed 79 AmeriCorps Legal Fellows in the field to provide direct legal assistance to those in need, and 700 Summer Corp members will serve in nonprofit public interest organizations across the country beginning in June.

As I write this, AmeriCorps is under fire, threatened by federal budget cuts. The House of Representatives recently passed H.R. 1, a measure that included the immediate elimination of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the agency that funds AmeriCorps.

In a recent blog post, we shared the story of AmeriCorps Legal Fellow Ed Nuesteter and his work on behalf of veterans, suffering from brain trauma, post-traumatic stress, substance abuse and homelessness who, rather than receiving treatment, are being incarcerated. Ed’s role is to help this vulnerable population move out of the criminal justice system and into supportive housing, medical and addiction treatment. According to John Driscoll, President and CEO of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, “The work of Equal Justice Works, the American Bar Association and AmeriCorps will have a direct impact on reducing veteran homelessness at a fraction of the cost of public services that will be required to help them if these efforts are abandoned.”

In this issue of our newsletter, you can also read about AmeriCorps Legal Fellow Jennifer Ngai and her service helping to keep D.C. residents in their homes, and JR LaPlante who as an AmeriCorps Legal Fellow developed a unique Indian estate planning initiative that has helped protect tribal lands in South Dakota.

These are just a few of the success stories of our AmeriCorps Legal Fellows – there are many more happening all over the country. Eliminating funding for AmeriCorps will severely impact the lives of thousands of Americans who depend on the legal services we provide. AmeriCorps members save taxpayer dollars, but they do much more than that. AmeriCorps members save homes, families and lives. I ask you to please show your support for AmeriCorps and visit to see how you can get involved.