Christopher Mendez, VOLS New York Volunteer
NY Fifty Hour Pro Bono Requirement Prods Former Marine to Help Bronx Health Organization
By Bill Lienhard, Executive Director, Volunteers of Legal Service
Volunteers of Legal Service (VOLS) has nearly 1,000 pro bono lawyers serving 3,000 clients each year. Every single pro bono lawyer and client has an important story to tell. In honor of National Pro Bono Week, I would like to tell the inspiring story of how Chris Mendez, a former Marine, came to do pro bono work for Community Health Worker Connections through VOLS' Microenterprise Project.
I knew I needed to get to know Chris when I received this concise, enthusiastic email from him:
"I believe you've been briefed on the pro bono work that I'm doing with Community Health Workers through SoBRO [South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation] to satisfy NY's pro bono requirement for admission. The project is moving along nicely. I thought perhaps we can grab lunch or coffee in the coming weeks so that I may formally introduce myself and give you an update on the work that I've done and what I'll be doing with them going forward."
Here was my opportunity to get out there and see VOLS in action! Although VOLS focuses on recruiting lawyers from large firms, and not on individual volunteers, I was curious to see, first hand, the impact of Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman's requirement that people applying to become lawyers in New York State first complete 50 hours of pro bono service. Who was Chris? What was the impact of the 50 hour rule? Why was Chris volunteering? What was he doing? Who was he volunteering for and what impact was it having? I decided to go and find out the story. I am very glad that I did.
Chris and I met for lunch near Bryant Park, and then again at his office at Invesco, where he works as a Senior Compliance Officer. Chris grew up in Mt. Holly, NJ, as the eldest of five children. His father emigrated here from Guatemala in 1981 and his mother is from Florida.
Chris is not one to dwell on the negative — he often described himself as "grateful" and "fortunate" — but with some pressing, I discovered that he grew up in circumstances that a less hardy person would not describe as fortunate. His mother was only 16 years old when she had him. Though Chris didn't share details, I gathered that his father was not in the picture. His mother, a nurse, had to work two or three jobs just to put food on the table. He told me, "We had Christmases and holidays when if it wasn't for a local church donating to us, we wouldn't have had anything." At some very low points, the family had to stay in a shelter for women and children. As Chris summed it up, "I come from nothing."
From a very young age, Chris was determined to build a better life for himself. Instead of attending public high school, he went to the Burlington County Institute of Technology in Medford, NJ to learn HVAC systems with the goal of eventually owning his own HVAC company. He graduated in June of 2001 and was already living on his own, working, and taking some community college courses.
Chris Mendez, Former Marine and Pro Bono Volunteer
Then, of course, September 11th happened. Wanting to serve his country, get out of the environment he was in, and be able to afford college, Chris enlisted in the Marines in December of 2001. He made it through the Marines' legendary Parris Island boot camp, and after job training, was stationed in Cherry Point, North Carolina, with a C-130 Marine Corps Aircraft Unit. His job was to make sure that at least a dozen of the unit's planes were "100 percent operational" at all times by maintaining logs, running reports, reviewing logbooks, and managing aircraft data.
Chris told me that the Marines became like a family to him. He said, "I was able to meet people that I never would have met had I not enlisted. People from Texas, Alabama, even people from foreign countries — people who had only been in the U.S. a short period of time. If you work hard, you can really go far in the military. I was fortunate enough to be able to work alongside some really good Marines. Leadership, bearing, work ethic — the training was incredible."
His four years of service also broadened his understanding of the world. Chris was deployed in Dakar, Senegal, Rota, Spain, and Catania, Sicily. Africa, in particular, made a big impression: "I thought I was low on the totem pole, but seeing Africa — there are so many people in need. It's tough — you want to do stuff to better your own life, but there are so many people out there in need."
The inequities Chris observed in Africa also sparked his interest in global economics. He described meeting "incredibly worldly people who could speak four or five languages," whose countries sat on top of incredible natural resources, but who were nonetheless living in extreme poverty.
Wanting to further his education, Chris took college courses on base through Park University during most of his time on active duty. When he left the Marines in 2006, he took advantage of the G.I. Bill and transferred to Temple University in Philadelphia. Missing the Marines, he soon re-enlisted as a reservist. He also secured a full-time job at Vanguard, the investment firm.
At this point in our conversation, I voiced my amazement with Chris’s energy. When I was that age, I could barely hold it together as a full-time student, while Chris worked full-time, went to school full-time, and spent his weekends serving our country in the reserves. Chris explained, "I had to work — I couldn't just go to school. People are like — when do you sleep? I don't, I'm kind of on 24/7."
Chris graduated from Temple in 2006, and then moved from Vanguard to Bank of New York. In 2011, he enrolled in Rutgers Law School, and later moved from Bank of New York to another full-time job with Delaware Investments in Philadelphia to be closer to school.
Chris’ search for volunteer work – the 50 hour requirement as a window into VOLS' Microenterprise Project
Chris's volunteer work started long before he began working for Community Health Worker Connections through SoBRO. Incredibly, from 2011-2013, while he was working full-time and starting law school, Chris volunteered with Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) in Philadelphia. His role was to act as an advocate for children going through the adoption process in the Philadelphia Family Court System. He visited children in their homes, tried to build a rapport with them, made sure they were going to school, and tried to ensure that they were safe.
Two or three semesters before graduation from law school, Chris realized that if he wanted to practice in New York, he would have to comply with Judge Lippman's 50-hour rule. Unlike other law students, his full-time job prevented him from signing up for legal clinics where he could have satisfied the requirement. He didn't see the 50 hour requirement as a burden at all. He said, "I felt like this was something that I wanted to do anyway, and the 50-hour rule gave me the opportunity to do it."Describing his search for a pro bono opportunity, Chris said:
"I was fortunate enough to come across VOLS. I looked at the projects, and the Microenterprise Project fit in perfectly with my experience and where I wanted to go in my career. Somehow, I thought, we can match my skill with the needs of your clients and build a long-term relationship that can be mutually beneficial. "To borrow Chris's favorite word, VOLS was fortunate that Chris contacted us when he did. Through our own long-term relationship with SoBRO, VOLS' Microenterprise Project has for years connected volunteer lawyers to small businesses and nonprofits in need of legal assistance in the South Bronx.
Maria Guevara and Patricia Hanchi, Community Health Worker Connections, co-founders
Meeting the client - Community Health Worker Connections
Tasemere Gathers, then SoBRO's Director of the Industrial Business Zone, had just contacted VOLS seeking legal assistance for Community Health Worker Connections, a nascent nonprofit with the mission of making health care more accessible to residents of the South Bronx.
Tasemere and VOLS arranged a meeting between Chris and Maria Guevara and Patricia Hanchi, the founders of Community Health Worker Connections. Tasemere told me:
“Chris was really great and wanted to get in there and figure out what Community Health Worker Connections really needed. SOBRO and Chris had to help Community Health Worker Connections think through the ins and outs of being a cooperative versus being a nonprofit. He has worked really hard on helping them think things through.”
Chris told me that after his first meeting with Maria and Patricia, he was inspired. He said, “They were like me: they really wanted to give back. They looked at their careers and asked themselves what they could do to improve the community around them.” With help from Jason Korta, an attorney volunteering with the Microenterprise Project, and from another attorney, Chris drafted CHW’s articles of incorporation, bylaws, and internal policies, helped them hold their initial meeting at which they appointed a Board of Directors, and also helped them begin the process of applying to the IRS for 501(c)(3) charitable status.
| "I feel like I've gotten more out of this than they have,” he told me. “I've had the opportunity to be with a client and to get to know and understand them. I had to implement the skills that I learned in law school. I had to do the legal research but I also had to figure out how to translate the law into language they understood. I'm excited to see Community Health Worker Connections take off and become something big."
I’d gotten out there and learned about Chris, but what about the impact of pro bono legal assistance from the client’s perspective? Who were Patricia and Maria? Why had they founded their organization?
Understanding the Need in the Bronx
I headed uptown to learn more. Community Health Worker Connections is currently based in SoBRO’s Venture Center, an incubator for small businesses and nonprofits at 199 Lincoln Avenue in the Bronx. Like Chris, Maria and Patricia are both working full-time while they pursue their dream of building an organization that will provide community health workers to the South Bronx. Maria is the Director of Maternal and Infant Community Health Collaborative, Northern Manhattan Perinatal Partnership, a program to teach women about health. Patricia is the Perinatal Health Coordinator at Columbia University Head Start.
Maria explained that the South Bronx is one of the least healthy places in New York State, and that the people there have very limited access to adequate health care. Indeed, the New York City Health Provider Partnership painted this grim picture of health in the Bronx in its 2014 Community Needs Assessment:
The population in the Bronx is burdened by a myriad of health challenges and socioeconomic circumstances that foster poor health outcomes. It is the least healthy county in New York State, and has high rates of chronic disease such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and respiratory disease including asthma/COPD, cancer and high rates of obesity. The Bronx leads New York State in the percentage of premature deaths in people aged less than 65 years; the leading causes of these deaths in the county are cancer, heart disease, unintentional injury, AIDS and diabetes. The Bronx also outpaces NYC overall in household poverty and low educational attainment . . .More than half of the Bronx population speaks a language other than English in the home, and many are immigrants, presenting possible additional cultural and regulatory challenges to health care access. Among the Medicaid population, the Bronx ranks highest among all boroughs in NYC in the rate of potentially preventable inpatient hospitalizations, including for chronic conditions overall and for certain chronic conditions such as circulatory conditions, respiratory conditions and diabetes. It also ranks second among the NYC boroughs in the rate of preventable emergency room visits (PPV).
According to Maria and Patricia, recent research has shown that providing community health workers to underserved communities is an effective and cost-efficient way to improve health outcomes. Community health workers are not doctors, nurses, or social workers. Instead, they are people trained to help others overcome all of the bureaucratic and practical obstacles to healthcare, and to help them follow through with their treatment. They:
Ideally, community health workers are people who are from the area they are serving, and speak the same language as the clients they are serving. Patricia, who is an immigrant herself, explained, "In my country, this would have been the role of your family member — a grandmother, sister, or brother. But in this country, those supports often do not exist, so you need someone to play this role.“ She gave me the example of a patient who is told he needs an MRI. The community health worker would make sure that the patient’s insurance covers it, would help the patient figure out where to go to get the MRI done, check in to make sure the patient actually got an MRI, and follow up to make sure that the patient understands his doctor’s interpretation of the MRI and the next steps.
|Both Patricia and Maria emphasized how cultural misunderstandings and language barriers can derail a patient’s treatment. For example, “once” means 11 in Spanish, so some Spanish-speakers get confused when they see “Take once a day” on a prescription bottle. Patricia also asked me, “Do you know what ‘TID’ means on a prescription bottle?” I had no idea. It means that the medication should be taken three times a day. Trained community health workers help clear up such miscommunications so that people receive the medication and treatment they need.||
"Chris was amazing. Very focused and very organized. He said, 'This is what we need to do. This is what I'm going to do.' And he delivered."
Because of the proven ability of community health workers to reduce ER visits, lower re-admission rates, reduce costs, and improve health, the Affordable Care Act created potential funding streams to support organizations with community health workers. Patricia and Maria’s vision was to take advantage of this funding to create an organization that would provide community health workers to residents of the South Bronx. Though both women knew a great deal about community healthcare, Maria said, “We realized that we didn't know anything about starting an organization. We needed to learn everything that we could.”
The two enrolled in a course at SoBRO for people starting new businesses or organizations, and from September 2013 to May 2014, they attended classes two nights per week. By May, they had a business plan done.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Lawyers have an ethical obligation to provide pro bono legal assistance, but learning about Chris’ work for CHW reminded me that pro bono is more than an obligation: it’s also a journey and an adventure. Judge Lippman’s 50-hour rule prompted Chris to find VOLS. VOLS led Chris to SoBRO. SoBRO led him to CHW, and through CHW, Chris is helping to heal one of the sickest areas in the United States. I hope you lawyers reading this will be inspired, and set out, like Chris, to discover how you can use your legal skills to make the world a better place.
Bill Lienhard, Executive Directors, Volunteers of Legal Service
Volunteers of Legal Service is a New York based organization. It leverages the good will, resources, and talents of New York City's leading law firms to provide pro bono legal assistance to the city’s neediest residents. Through their projects, their attorneys provide pro bono assistance that helps reunite families, stave off evictions, resolve immigration issues, win vital government benefits, and start small businesses.