Austin lawyers organize full-service fair for women in need

One of the biggest social service events in Austin is organized and funded by what some might consider an unlikely group: lawyers.

The Austin Young Lawyers Association, in fact, founded the project in 2007 and continues to produce the event, which is phenomenal not only for its logistics but for the scope of what it offers.

The Women’s Resource Fair on April 8 at the Schmidt-Jones Family Life Center will offer women in need a chance to get medical services, legal help, mental health services, social service referrals, credit counseling, job skills counseling and more. It also offers free haircuts, a clothing closet, breakfast and lunch and — probably the most remarkable service — childcare. And there are interpreters for those who speak mostly Spanish.

“It’s a one-stop shop,” said Liz Branch, a lawyer with Goldsmith, Bogisch & Chaires and a co-founder of the event. “Not only can women come and get vital medical services and legal assistance, but they can also get a haircut and kind of pamper themselves.”

It takes a core group of about 15 volunteer lawyers to plan the event every year, and most of them have been doing it since the beginning. Each is assigned to an aspect of the day, working with community groups, nonprofits and local businesses to organize and execute the services.

Lawyers also volunteer to offer guidance on a range of issues, from family law to consumer issues.

Branch told the story of one of the lawyer volunteers meeting a woman who was raising her nephew who needed a heart transplant. The boy couldn’t get it because his parents weren’t around and his aunt did not have guardianship. So the attorney did all the paperwork for her that day and followed up with her to make sure she could get her nephew the life-saving transplant he needed, she said.

Mishell Kneeland, an attorney with Culhane Meadows, has organized the medical services for the past nine years. She enlists local physicians, clinics, nonprofits and medical services companies to provide woman exams, immunizations, mammograms, HIV testing, access to a general practitioner and lab services. “We have an incredibly generous medical community in Austin,” said Kneeland.

“For some of our attendees, this is where they get all their health care for the year,” she said.

Nelda Garcia, a nurse with Austin Public Health who has provided immunizations at the event for the past three years, said she was impressed with the scope of the event. “It’s so well organized. And I love that they’re empowering women in need. I think it’s important for them to see that there are professional people in our community who haven’t forgotten about everyday people.”

Kneeland says organizing the event, “is the hardest thing I’ve ever done and the best thing I’ve ever done.”

“We are just a bunch of people who believe everyone should be treated with dignity and respect,” said Kneeland. “We know how hard it is for women to get all of these services and support, especially in one day. And that’s really part of the magic of it.”

PHOTO: Lawyer volunteers from 2015 Women’s Resource Fair, Chari Kelly, Whitney Mack, Liz Branch, Amanda Arriaga, Nadia Bettac and Lauren Downey. Photo by Debbie Kelly.

NOTE: This article is published through a partnership with the Austin American-Statesman, which first published this story on Feb. 26, 2017. 

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