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Michelle Pfeiffer, Sean Penn and The Legal Clinic for the Disabled. See a connection? Pfeiffer and Penn star in the recently released “I Am Sam,” a movie in which a mentally challenged father loses custody of his daughter because of his disability and a lawyer who helps him — pro bono — to take a stand. This silver screen tale translates into the type of situation that The Legal Clinic for the Disabled encounters almost every day. A source of legal guidance for nearly 1,000 low-income, physically disabled individuals a year, the clinic provides advice concerning Social Security, health benefits and other matters, and supplies pro bono support. The clinic was formed in 1990 after a study revealed the limited availability of free legal services to the physically disabled. The young lawyers divisions of both the Pennsylvania and Philadelphia bar associations and other community members continue to dedicate their time and pro bono services to the cause. Sources of funding for the clinic come from grants by foundations, including the Philadelphia Foundation, the IOLTA Foundation and the Independence Foundation, and the clinic’s annual fund-raising project, Stroll & Roll. The clinic has been focusing on broadening its services in terms of the legal issues it deals with, such as adding a domestic violence specialty to its services, and expanding its staff and volunteer base. “This is a community of people that deserve to have aggressive advocates,” said Joyce Brong, a former partner of a medium-size law firm and now executive director of the clinic. “We are like a boutique nonprofit legal center because we help a specialized group of clients but have a general practice because we are helping in an array of matters.” Through presentations at various hospitals, agencies for the disabled and disability groups, the clinic has been promoting awareness among the disabled community of the legal services that are available for their purposes. “We’re going to places in the community to make sure that people know we exist,” Brong said. “We’re getting our name out.” The clinic is only the second of its kind — one physically located within a rehabilitation hospital — in the country; the first was the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Though the Magee Rehabilitation Hospital provides the clinic physical office space within its facilities and has a “wonderful relationship” with the clinic, Brong said, the clinic remains a separate entity. As part of the expansion effort, plans for a satellite office of the clinic in the suburbs of Philadelphia are being considered. The clinic is supported by 200 volunteer attorneys and a volunteer and staff base, of which there are three full-time staff members including Brong, a staff attorney and a paralegal. However, the clinic is always looking to secure the services of more lawyers and volunteers for clients. In the fall, Brong; former staff attorney Esther Miller, who joined the clinic after graduating from Temple University Law School; and board member Deborah Groeber, previously of Philadelphia-based Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, conducted “road shows,” as Groeber put it, at which they spoke with numerous new associates at the law firms in Philadelphia about the clinic and its program, encouraging the attorneys to volunteer with them in their cause. “We talk to them on SEPTA trains, on the street, at pro bono luncheons, everywhere,” Groeber said. She acknowledged that there is an on-going struggle in recruiting volunteers, but she praised the volunteer and staff at the clinic for their “great hearts.” Paul Booth, a trusts and estates attorney at Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll; Mike Viola of Shainberg & Viola, a repeated volunteer attorney in the clinic’s family law cases; and Andrea Rea, a health care and litigation attorney at Reed Smith, are examples of attorneys who have donated their time and expertise to the clinic’s cause. Rea became involved with the clinic in 1999 after the pro bono director at Pittsburgh-based Reed Smith circulated an e-mail about pro bono cases to the lawyers. Finding a particular case in the e-mail compelling, Rea responded to the e-mail and has since taken on two other cases for the clinic. “Every lawyer should do pro bono work,” Rea said. “It’s the most rewarding work I’ve ever done because these are people who otherwise would not have legal representation. They are so grateful, it’s an incredible experience.” Rea also served as a liaison between The Legal Clinic and Reed Smith by organizing a program for the firm’s summer associates to do pro bono work for a week while they were being paid by Reed Smith. Referring to her and the other lawyers as “street lawyers,” Brong said, “We’re the ones in the trenches, but that’s the fun part about it.” With a recent grant awarded by the Samuel S. Fels Fund, the clinic has been able to reinvigorate its board through retreats, instituting a new sense of purpose and direction. New members have been elected to the 18-member board in a further attempt to infuse new energy and ideas into the team. Mary O’Donnell-Green of Litvin, Blumberg, Matusow & Young; Thomas McCourt, an independent litigation consultant with Orion Group USA; and Groeber, an attorney focusing on employment law cases involving the disabled, joined the clinic’s board in November. They are involved in strategic planning, development of resources and promotion of the clinic. Through regular board and committee meetings, the board has been working to expand the services and resources that are used to oversee clinic operations. McCourt heads the development committee and is working on a new initiative between the clinic, Magee Hospital and Women Against Abuse to train Magee staff in the special needs of domestic-violence victims. He joined the volunteer base after becoming involved in various clinic activities, beginning with the Stroll & Roll. O’Donnell-Green leads the outreach publicity committee and has been promoting the clinic, especially in terms of the Stroll & Roll, which will be kicked off by Channel 3 reporter Tamsen Fadal in September. “I think the most important thing about the clinic is that it gives people with all kinds of disabilities a voice,” O’Donnell-Green said. A part of the volunteer base at the clinic since 1997, O’Donnell-Green was introduced to the clinic when she visited it with her brother, who suffered from severe multiple sclerosis. “I was really impressed with the volunteers,” she said. “There were people volunteering there in wheelchairs, with head injuries, with visible disabilities. They put forth a lot of effort and are dynamic, caring people.” Groeber serves on the outreach publicity committee in addition to helping with fund-raising. The outreach part of the committee has been planning visits to disability organizations to help educate them about what The Legal Clinic does, providing information to their clients if they should encounter legal problems. Although she is currently not representing any of the clinic’s clients, Groeber volunteers at the clinic twice a week, answering telephone calls and helping with client intake. Groeber heard about the clinic while she was an outpatient in Magee and decided to become a volunteer. With at least two years of experience behind her, Groeber now furthers her involvement in the clinic in her role as a board member. “I can understand how difficult it is to get legal help since I myself have a disability,” Groeber said. “The clinic provides such a valuable service. There is no other entity like this one in Philadelphia.” Brong said: “That we have managed to stay in existence despite being given so many difficulties in finding funds, that we still keep going, it’s a miracle. That we can increase its size and structure and continue growing [the clinic] is really wonderful.”

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