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Volunteer of the Month: HAP Intern Jessica Ozberker

Monday, April 04, 2005

  • By: Rachel Fretz
  • Organization: VLSP


The Volunteer Legal Services Program's Homeless Advocacy Project (HAP) struck gold when social work volunteer intern Jessica Ozberker came on board in the summer of 2004. Jessica's tireless advocacy - whether it be helping clients navigate Supplemental Security Income, Section 8, a housing search, or countless related social services - has effected positive and profound change for those she's helped.

Jessica is no stranger to volunteering. "I have lots of [volunteer] experience in HIV/AIDS outreach and education among at-risk youth, AIDS conference participation, conflict mediation, disabled student advocacy, peer advocacy, and advocacy on behalf of middle school children and their families…," she says (to name just a few!). She's off to a running start - Jessica is currently in her second year of graduate school at San Jose State University to obtain a Masters in Social Work specializing in children, youth and families.

Jessica's year-long internship at HAP has afforded her valuable experience and memorable clients, but the one case that stands out, she says, involves a particularly needy client, R.J.*, an HIV-positive, hoarder-clutterer, schizophrenic drug user who came to HAP last summer looking for help in saving his Section 8 rental subsidy. Not only had R.J. failed a Section 8 inspection, but his landlord wanted him out on nuisance grounds that stemmed from his hoarding.

Jessica worked with volunteer attorney Bob Borton of Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe LLP to make sure R.J. didn't lose his Section 8 voucher, first and foremost, because the waiting list for a new one would be years. Jessica was able to mitigate the nuisance charge by rolling up her sleeves, heading over to R.J.'s apartment, and meeting City social services workers to help them clean the place up. Once the short-term problem was fixed, Jessica concentrated on the big picture task of finding R.J. new housing, away from his former drug environment, and with a friendlier landlord. Jessica persevered headlong through the harrows of the housing search until she found an ideal unit. She accompanied R.J. to all of the meetings with his new landlord, arranged for Section 8 approval, and secured rental assistance through Seasons of Sharing to help pay for R.J.'s deposit.

While securing R.J.'s housing was indeed rewarding, Jessica says the most meaningful aspect was the rapport they built. R.J., who despite his issues was exceedingly perceptive, began to actively engage in the process on his own behalf once he trusted that Jessica genuinely cared what happened to him as a person. "His whole attitude changed; his whole demeaner has changed," she recalls, "He's less depressed and is very appreciative of our time - he's come to understand, you guys actually care about me!"

Jessica's dedication has garnered well-deserved recognition. Attorney Bob Borton offers enthusiastic accolates: "Jessica has taken complete ownership of this complicated assignment, working with great persistence and also with great sensitivity to the client's needs," Bob says. "Her work has been a wonderful example of how thoughtful, personal attention by a skillful individual can make a real difference."

But Jessica insists this wasn't a one-woman show: "As much as I want to take the credit, there's no way I did this single-handedly!" Jessica laughs before explaining that, for her, an invaluable part of the experience was the collaboration among the attorneys, social services, and clients.

When Jessica's not busy going the extra mile on behalf of a client, the San Francisco native extends her dynamic energy to travel, language, dance, and good conversation.

* Name has been changed to protect client's identity.

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