Evelyn Ayay

The Project

Evelyn (she/her/hers) will empower families and children with developmental disabilities to access critical early childhood special education services through education, representation, and a medical-legal partnership.

Access to early childhood special education services can dramatically change the developmental trajectory of young children with disabilities. Yet, programming in Illinois is not meeting the needs of children with developmental disabilities from racially and economically marginalized communities where a lack of identification and disparities in services and programming are exceedingly common.

Families and children with developmental disabilities benefit from education and representation to have the knowledge and tools they need to access critical special education services starting in preschool.

Evelyn’s background in child development inspires her deep commitment to empowering families and increasing access to early childhood special education services.

Fellowship Plans

During her Fellowship, Evelyn will provide education, advocacy, and direct legal representation. Her project will focus on the representation of children at risk of being excluded from special education or receiving inadequate services due to systemic barriers, racial biases, and a lack of resources within their communities. She will also build a medical-legal partnership and use tele-mentoring to educate and collaborate with medical providers who play a critical role in the education and advocacy process for families.

By ensuring access to services early on, we can not only improve outcomes for children in preschool, but also long-term outcomes and build a more equitable education system in Illinois.

Evelyn Ayay /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Amy Benford is a 2018 Equal Justice Works Fellow serving in the Disaster Recovery Legal Corps (DRLC). .

Amy will provide free legal assistance to low income asylum seekers residing in the Greater Houston area who have been negatively impacted by Hurricane Harvey. Services include consultations, brief services, advice, and intake screening for representation at the Houston immigration court, as well as full representation before the local asylum office and immigration court in immigration law matters including but not limited to: affirmative and defensive asylum applications, motions to reopen, work authorization applications and renewals, stays of removal, and appeals. She will engage in both direct representation of asylum seekers and in training and mentoring of pro bono attorneys handling matters for impacted clients.

Prior to joining the DRLC, Amy served as an Associate focusing on executive compensation and benefits at the law firm of Vinson & Elkins LLP in Houston. She served in a similar role at the law firm of Cravath, Swaine, & Moore in New York City. While at Cravath, Amy took on a number of pro bono matters. She represented low-income clients in immigration and public benefits cases. She is proficient in Spanish and conversant in Portuguese. Amy is a 2011 graduate of the University of Chicago Law School and the Booth School of Business. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from Rice University in Houston.

The Inspiration

The Project

Aimee represented students with disabilities who are required to participate in court diversion programs (court-diverted students) to address their educational needs in order to prevent school exclusion, increase academic achievement, and decrease recidivism.

Students with disabilities are disproportionately involved in the juvenile justice system and are in critical need of representation to obtain the educational services necessary to prevent recidivism. Student suspensions often lead to expulsions and court referrals, so it is particularly alarming that Chicago Public Schools suspended 42 percent of all students with disabilities at least once in 2010, as compared to the national rate of 13 percent. It is also troubling that there were 11,225 school-based arrests in Chicago from 2009-2010 because students with disabilities are more likely to become involved in the juvenile justice system when they are suspended, expelled, or arrested. Intervention is critical at the early juncture when students with disabilities are diverted from court so as to ensure they receive the educational supports they need to remain in school and out of the court system.

Fellowship Highlights

During her Fellowship, Aimee has:

  • Provided 220 families of students with disabilities and others calling on their behalf with self-advocacy assistance or direct legal representation to prevent expulsions; place students in their appropriate least restrictive environments; evaluate students’ eligibility for special education services; and create appropriate Individualized Education Programs, 504 Plans, and Behavior Intervention Plans
  • Shared information with 347 attendees at 16 outreach events on her project and the special education rights of court-diverted students with disabilities
  • Trained 312 attorneys, paralegals, probation officers, mental health professionals, disability and educational advocates, community service providers, and teachers at 16 training events focused on the special education rights of students with disabilities involved in school-based discipline incidents

Where are they now?

Now that the Fellowship is complete, Aimee continues to work at Equip for Equality’s Special Education Clinic, ensuring that all students have access to the educational opportunities they need to succeed.

The Project

Sarah provided individualized, holistic legal advocacy to juveniles in the North Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago and created the first resource center for Chicago pro bono attorneys who wish to practice in juvenile court.

North Lawndale is a neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago where more than 1,500 youths are arrested annually. The majority of youth in all of Illinois who are incarcerated for drug offenses come from North Lawndale. Additionally, more than 70 percent of North Lawndale’s youth live in poverty, and fewer than 40 percent graduate high school. These juveniles need more than legal representation. They need comprehensive services beyond the courtroom, including mentoring, job training, and social work sensitive to their developmental needs. Lawndale Christian Legal Center provides holistic representation, integrating legal and social services to walk with juveniles every step of the way as they move through, and ultimately away from, the criminal justice system.

Fellowship Highlights

  • Represented more than 20 youth under the age of 18 in criminal cases in juvenile and adult court
  • Won two motions to quash arrest for teenagers unlawfully stopped by police, leading to the dismissal of their cases
  • Worked holistically with Lawndale Christian Legal Center’s team of social workers to ensure that youth clients are embraced by their communities, restored from trauma, and empowered to move beyond their involvement in the criminal justice system

The Project

Robert Wallace Armstrong Jr. provided unaccompanied minors with legal representation in EOIR removal proceedings.

The Project

Rachel represented survivors of domestic violence in their consumer legal issues, including debt-collection defense, foreclosure, and credit reporting issues, with a focus on clearing credit and protecting income.

Consumer debt, identity theft, and bad credit pose a significant threat to the possibility of a safe and stable future for survivors of domestic violence. Legal representation in consumer cases directly addresses these issues. Defending a debt-collection action protects a survivor’s wages from garnishment. Applying for a loan modification and defending against a foreclosure keeps a family housed during divorce and separation. Disputing invalid debts on credit reports helps to clear a survivor’s credit history and open up options for stable housing. Most importantly, providing information and advice on financial issues puts the power back in a survivor’s hands.

Fellowship Highlights

In the past two years, Rachel has:

  • Defended against foreclosures on marital homes during divorces
  • Represented clients in debt-collection lawsuits to protect clients’ income from garnishment
  • Disputed accounts that were the product of identity theft by former partners to wipe away thousands of dollars of debt
  • Created a monthly help desk at a local domestic violence service organization to provide hour-long consultations on consumer issues for their clients
  • Presented to service providers and client communities on the facts of debt-collection to help clients prioritize their debts and bills
  • Advised clients on their financial options during separation and divorce from abusive partners regarding marital debt and assets

What’s Next

Now that the Fellowship is complete, Rachel plans to:

  • Continue representing survivors of domestic violence in their civil legal needs at LAF, including in foreclosure defense, bankruptcy, identity theft, and debt-collection defense
  • Work on materials to help legal aid lawyers who work with survivors of domestic violence understand the connection between economic justice and gender equity
  • Investigate and pursue a “coerced-debt” defense to collection actions


20 in their 20s

The Project

Andrew provided education and representation to empower Illinois residents with disabilities to live more independently by overcoming barriers in accessing the health care and related services they need.

A range of factors put people with disabilities at higher risk for health problems, making them more likely than nondisabled people to require acute or long-term health services. Yet Americans with disabilities face many barriers in obtaining the health care they need. These include lack of physical access for people with mobility impairments at hospitals and doctors’ offices; lack of communication access for people who are deaf or hard of hearing; the difficulty of navigating the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid, Medicare, and managed care systems; and the State’s often arbitrary allocation of home services and durable medical equipment. Access to health care is essential if people with disabilities in Illinois are to live healthy and productive lives.

Fellowship Highlights

In the past two years, Andrew has:   Explored systemic deficiencies in Illinois’ Medicaid managed care system  Filed numerous administrative appeals against Medicaid managed care organizations to protect clients from losing the home services they need to live independently  Represented a client in an administrative hearing as well as in state court to defend her legal right to choose and employ a personal assistant without state interference  Negotiated with hospitals and doctors’ offices to ensure accommodations for patients and visitors with sensory impairments and other disabilities  Successfully appealed insurance carriers’ denials of coverage for essential neuropsychological testing for clients with developmental and intellectual disabilities

What’s Next

Now that the Fellowship is complete, Andrew plans to:

  • Continue his work at his host organization Equip for Equality, which has welcomed him to remain as a staff attorney. Andrew is excited to build upon the work of his fellowship and his efforts in helping Illinois residents with disabilities obtain timely and quality health care services.