By Emily Guillaume, 2018 Rural Summer Legal Corps Student Fellow
“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 the Lewisburg office of Legal Aid of West Virginia. Divorcing couples bicker over tractors, pigs, and chicken coops. Tenants might complain about gutters filled with snakes or raccoon-infested dumpsters. It’s a bit like a reality show—think “Judge Judy” meets “Duck Dynasty”. But all kidding aside, my experience helping to serve the underserved in this 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 $24,478; 19.1 percent of the population lives in poverty, including an estimated 91,734 children. West Virginia is also poor in health: 38.1 percent of adults are obese (the highest in the nation), almost a quarter of adults smoke, and overdose deaths from opioid abuse total almost 44 per 100,000 (also the highest in the nation).
But there are plenty of aspects, too often overlooked, wherein West Virginia is decidedly NOT poor. It is not poor 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 of those places come close to the jaw-dropping, abundant natural beauty of West Virginia. It is similarly not poor 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 never not welcomed into the homes of complete strangers for good food and even better conversation.
It is also not poor in resilience. I saw many clients hardened by years of hard, thankless work, poor 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. Too, the state itself is 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 aplenty.
Public interest law is about giving a voice to oppressed, silenced, and forgotten people and places. It is our job to find creative solutions to help not just them, but all of us.
Emily Guillaume /
2018 Rural Summer Legal Corps Student Fellow
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 saw at Legal Aid of West Virginia—an organization dedicated to making things better and finding ways to make the ordinary extraordinary.
Emily Guillaume is a law student at Indiana University Maurer School of Law who spent last summer helping to address the access to justice crisis for people living in West Virginia, as part of the Rural Summer Legal Corps.
Create your own story of service, just like Emily! Apply for the Rural Summer Legal Corps today.