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Pro Bono Spotlight January 2004

Pro Bono Spotlight

In November, the Harrisburg office of Reed Smith L.L.P. adopted a new Dauphin County Bar Association (DCBA) Pro Bono Project launched to assist the “lost boys” of the Sudan. Reed Smith attorney Jeremy D. Feinstein spearheaded this effort and recruited his colleagues, Renee C. Mattei Myers and Michael Miller. Feinstein did not stop there. He also sought and obtained official approval from the firm to support the new pro bono project.

Below, Feinstein responds to some questions regarding the project.

Q: Who are the “lost boys?”
A: These refugees are known as the “lost boys” because many of them were orphaned by the bloody civil war in the African country of Sudan. News accounts estimate that roughly 33,000 Sudanese children ran into the bush when the fighting began in their villages, and they kept on running. At the time they fled their villages, some of the boys were as young as three years old.

After their initial trek through the desert (covering about 1,000 miles, without adult leadership) the boys ended up in a UN-sponsored refugee camp in Ethiopia. Then, after three years of barely surviving, they were forced to flee once again (at gunpoint) and ended up in a refugee camp in Kenya. The boys lived together in the Kenya camp for many years as a virtual “city of children” until the U.S. State Department agreed to resettle roughly 6,000 of these lost boys here. Two years ago, roughly 40 Sudanese refugees arrived in Harrisburg, and since then the United Way, a number of local social service agencies and various religious organizations have been helping the boys make the transition from their tribal and refugee life in Africa to American life. But the transition has not always been easy, to put it mildly.

Q: What types of legal issues do they encounter?
A: Before arriving here, the boys never saw a motorized vehicle, an elevator or a phone. Thus, educating the boys regarding the basic responsibilities and cultural norms that most American kids would take for granted, such as the need to respond promptly to government notices and to pay bills on time, has been quite a task. So, some of the “lost boys” have had legal issues arise related to things like traffic violations, apartment leases, employment, rent-to-own contracts, auto accidents and local taxes. New and unexpected issues arise frequently.

Q: How did the bar association get involved?
A: While many local community volunteers were helping the boys adjust; the problem of providing accessible legal assistance to deal with these legal issues remained a problem. Over the past summer, the local United Way approached DCBA Public Services Coordinator Sandy Ballard to recruit a small group of dedicated attorneys willing to be “on call” to assist the boys as they encounter legal issues from time to time. The project was launched in September. The idea was that the volunteer attorneys would be available to assist the boys directly with their legal problems and stay involved as a legal liaison.

Q: Why did you get involved?
A: I had heard about the “lost boys” from friends and relatives in other cities who have worked to coordinate the provision of social services to the boys. But until Sandy Ballard told me, I did not know that there was a group of the boys in Harrisburg. When she told me that the boys have a substantial and ongoing need for legal help, for which they obviously are not able to pay, I though it would be a great thing for Reed Smith to try to do what it could to help out a group of kids who have faced — and still face — such extraordinary challenges.

Q: Why did you reach out to the firm’s home office?
A: Reed Smith as a firm, and our Harrisburg office in particular, is always looking for interesting pro bono opportunities in the communities we serve, so I knew that I would get strong support for this project from our headquarters in Pittsburgh. I also thought that other Reed Smith offices might be interested in representing the “lost boys” in their communities if they were aware of the need and opportunity for such service.

Q: Why are you personally committed to pro bono work?
A: Most of my daily work involves serving the particular companies or individuals that are my clients, and that can be very rewarding, but it is also great to sometimes feel like the community is the client. Even though this project involves representation of particular boys in particular matters, helping the boys make a successful adjustment to life in this country is something that is really beneficial to the whole community, as the United Way and others have understood from the outset.

Q: What advice do you have for other attorneys who want to do more pro bono work?
A: Well, it goes without saying that they should contact their local bar association to get some ideas for projects.

If you want to learn more about the Dauphin County Bar Association Lost Boys Pro Bono Project, contact DCBA Public Services Coordinator Sandy Ballard at 717-232-7536 or sandy@dcba-pa.org.