A Toledo group of pro-bono women attorneys have shown that when you cross the help of sincere, legal advocates with well-deserving teenage parents, you end up with a wildly successful, empowering and important program called Sisters-in-Law.
Laying down the law
Sisters-in-Law is a group of women lawyers working in partnership with Mom’s House (momshousetoledo.org), a Toledo nonprofit founded 21 years ago that assists at-risk single mothers, ages 13-24. The local lawyers involved with Sisters-in-Law each mentor a parent at Mom’s House, one-on-one, paired based on specialties and needs.
This partnership began when Toledo lawyer, Gretchen DeBacker, founder of Sisters-in-Law, and Christina Rodriguez, Executive Director of Mom’s House, spent time discussing their mutual interest in public advocacy and nonprofit work. Rodriquez would often ask DeBacker for legal advice related to mothers enrolled in the progam at Mom’s House, and the need for continual care became obvious. What first began as an idea, grew into a comprehensive and supportive program, now involving a dozen lawyers.
The legal expertise of the Sisters-in-Law helps young parents navigate legal situations, such as parental agreements, domestic relations, housing, employment matters, and more.
“We are working with people on razor thin margins,” said Debacker. “Having free legal aid gives access to stability and security, minimizing crisis.”
A house as a home
Mentors in Sisters-in-Law often come to the house to see their mentees. Lucinda Weller, of Legal Aid of Western Ohio, is an attorney involved in the program. Weller often visits “her Mom,” a high school student, as a way to maintain their bond and to feel comfortable together.
Since Weller’s mentee is a minor, Weller works with her to arrange child support and to make sure the mom knows her rights.
“I’m trying to be a resource, so if she has questions she can call me,” said Weller, pausing to laugh, “but we also text. A lot.”
Continual interactions and bonding has made their mentorship stronger and more effective. “It was really great to hold [her] baby,” said Weller, saying that it helped their connection. “She sees me as a mom, too, not just a lawyer.”
The dynamic partnership of Sisters-in-Law and Mom’s House has attracted local community attention. Chicks for Charity, a local fundraising group, selected Mom’s House as their 2015-16 recipient, raising funds during the Chicks Mix’s party on Tuesday, July 7 at the Toledo Botanical Garden.
The Sisters also took home the prize at the most recent Toledo SOUP, a micro-grant program. The Sisters’ presentation was led by Debacker and Rodriguez, and a mentor/mentee pair also spoke.
“We were really excited. According to the organizers, it was one of the largest attended crowds and most amount of money, $2600,” said DeBacker. “We’re going to use the money to continue our program and pay for start-up costs, payroll for children at the daycare, and future events with the moms and mentors.”
The Sisters-in-Law will also present during the upcoming Toledo SOUP event on June 14 at The Ohio Theatre. (read more on the Big to Do, pg 34).