The Northern Illinois University College of Law officially opened the doors to its new Health Advocacy Clinic at Hesed House Community Resource Center, 680 S. River Street in Aurora. Representatives from NIU Law and the City of Aurora, as well as alumni, students and faculty from the college celebrated the opening of the new clinic with a dedication ceremony on October 30, 2014.
The new Health Advocacy Clinic is a medical-legal partnership between Northern Illinois University College of Law, Aunt Martha’s Health Center and Hesed House Community Resource Center. Hesed House is the second largest shelter for homeless individuals and their families in the state of Illinois, and the largest such shelter outside of Chicago. Aunt Martha’s Health Center is a health care and social service agency that has earned a national reputation for meeting the needs of children, youth and families.
Special guests and speakers included NIU President Doug Baker; NIU Law Dean Jennifer Rosato Perea; Carole Cheney, District Director to U.S. Congressman Bill Foster (Illinois 11th Congressional district); Rick Guzman, Assistant Chief of Staff to Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner; NIU Law Professors Anita Maddali, Director of Clinics and Colleen Boraca, Supervising Attorney of the Health Advocacy Clinic; along with Hesed House and Aunt Martha executives and NIU law students.
President Baker praised the work of the College of Law and its clinic partners saying, “These clinics exemplify what we are trying do with our students,” referring to NIU’s triangle offense that connects students and academic programs to the world in support of the university’s keystone goal of student career success.
“You can learn a lot of facts in a classroom, but you don’t learn how to diagnose and solve problems in society unless you are doing these kinds of client-based activities,” Baker continued. “These clinics help our community and create a generation of lawyers that are going to go out and change the world.”
Clinical Associate Professor Anita Maddali, who serves as director of NIU Law Clinical Programs, shared her personal journey regarding the loss and untimely death of her late husband due to a chronic illness and the frustrations they endured during the process. It was evident that her passion and vision for the Health Advocacy Clinic came from her experiences of having been on both sides of the table – of having to be an advocate for herself and her family as well as having to be the “client” and rely on the help of others.
The Health Advocacy Clinic is led by NIU Law Clinical Assistant Professor Colleen Boraca, formerly of the AIDS Legal Clinic of Chicago. In the past few weeks, the clinic has begun serving clients with a team of three NIU Law students assisting Boraca. “We have spent the last year creating the necessary foundation for operating a clinical law practice. Now the students are helping to run the clinic: interviewing and counseling clients, drafting legal documents, advocating at public aid offices – and will soon begin representing clients at formal hearings,” said Boraca.
Kelli Schmidt, a third-year law student and Aurora resident, did not hesitate to take advantage of the valuable clinic opportunity in her hometown. Schmidt volunteered with Hesed House when she was younger and says her experience has come full circle.
“I’ve learned how important it is to use my law degree to give back to the community and advocate for those who can’t advocate for themselves,” said Schmidt.
She added that clinic training has helped her to become a more effective communicator and listener, deal with different clientele, and has given her experience in working with other professionals such as medical staff and social workers. She said her experience is setting her apart from other candidates in the job market.
The Clinic holistically addresses client needs by integrating legal services into a medical setting. The issues facing homeless individuals and families are multifaceted and increasingly demand an integrated approach. NIU Law Clinic faculty and law students work collaboratively with medical professionals and social workers to provide free legal, medical, and social services to clients with limited resources from across the region. They address legal issues impeding good health by assisting clients with accessing life-stabilizing public benefits such as Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, and food stamps.
The Clinic also has formed community partnerships with local legal aid agencies such as Prairie State Legal Services and Administer Justice to ensure that clients have referral sources for those legal needs not directly represented by the Health Advocacy Clinic.
Rick Guzman, assistant chief of staff to Aurora Mayor Tom Wisner, Hesed House Board member, and a 2009 graduate of the NIU College of Law, welcomed his alma mater to the city of Aurora. “When we all come together, there is more that’s possible than one could do on their own,” said Guzman as he commended the partnerships that will continue to provide valuable services for the community.
“The addition of a new, innovative clinic in the heart of Aurora further reinforces NIU Law’s commitment to community engagement,” said NIU Law Dean Jennifer Rosato Perea. “Through such partnerships, the school has the opportunity to model to its law students the value of using one’s legal skills to meaningfully assist members of their community. In addition, the clinic setting provides an invaluable experiential learning opportunity that helps prepare out students to practice.”
The new NIU Law Health Advocacy Clinic is the school’s fourth legal clinic. In addition, NIU Law currently has two clinical programs housed in its Zeke Giorgi Legal Clinic in Rockford, Illinois. The Civil Justice Clinic has served more than 2,000 clients in the Winnebago County area since its founding in 2001, and provided opportunities for over 300 NIU law students to work cases in the areas of elder law, domestic abuse, adult criminal, and mediation. In 2011, the Zeke Giorgi Legal Clinic expanded its program to include a Juvenile Justice Clinic. The school’s Foreclosure Mediation Clinic, funded by a $1.5 million grant from the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, is part of a community engagement project to address the residential foreclosure crisis in Kane County, Illinois. It is a joint effort between NIU Law, the Kane County Courts, Resolution Systems Institute – a non-profit organization dedicated to strengthening justice by enhancing court Alternative Dispute Resolution Systems, Prairie State Legal Services – a provider of legal services to low-income families and groups, and several other community partners.
As the only public law school in Northern Illinois, NIU Law has been named a top law school nationally for diversity, value, and careers in public interest/government service. NIU Law provides unique opportunities for its students, beginning with its highly accomplished faculty who are personally invested in the success of every student throughout their professional lives. Many alumni serve as public interest attorneys, prosecutors, defenders, elected officials, and judges, but graduates are equally prepared for careers as solo practitioners or lawyers in multinational law firms.
For more information on NIU Law’s Health Advocacy Center, view the website at www.niu.edu/law.