Lesley Silverio Mendoza, executive director of Cuban American Bar Association Pro Bono Legal Services. Photo: J. Albert Diaz/ALM.

Even before she went to law school, Lesley Silverio Mendoza was defending children.

Just after college graduation, the Hialeah native spent a year teaching at Monsignor Edward Pace High School in Miami Gardens. She found out one of her students was about to get an F in another class for a late paper, so she took him to the library and helped him finish it. Mendoza knew the boy’s spot on the wrestling team was his only chance at a college scholarship.

“This student was basically homeless,” Mendoza said. “The father was in jail. The mother was nowhere to be found. [He was] definitely going through a really rough time.”

When the F stood, a teary-eyed Mendoza marched to the principal’s office and refused to leave until the grade was eventually changed—but not before chewing out the English teacher.

“When you were 15, you had your mom, your dad,” she said. “They would have driven you to Orlando if they had to for you to do your paper, the same way mine would have. So why is it that you can’t have any sympathy for this kid?”

Today, Mendoza brings that same passion to leading CABA Pro Bono Legal Services, a nonprofit established by the Cuban American Bar Association to aid disadvantaged Spanish speakers in need of lawyers.

CABA Pro Bono takes on a variety of clients, including survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking. But Mendoza’s passion has always been helping undocumented children get their green cards.

“It’s something that is very inspirational to me, the lives of these children: How they undergo so much and still are so kind and have such a generous, humble spirit,” she said. “I learn a lot from the children. It definitely puts my life into perspective—and my children’s life—and it makes me a happier person, being able to help them.”

She worked on her first special immigrant juvenile status case as an associate at White & Case in New York City after graduating from the University of Miami School of Law. The pro bono work turned out to be her favorite part of the job.

Mendoza and her husband, Andy, moved back to Miami as their family grew, finding their Upper West Side apartment ”really couldn’t accommodate more than two kids, and neither could our budget.” 

She was a stay-at-home mom until 2013, when their youngest of four was in preschool. That’s when Mendoza got a call from her friend Mariela Martinez-Cid, whose husband, Ricardo, was just elected president of CABA.

The board was looking for someone passionate about legal services to become executive director of CABA Pro Bono, and Mendoza fit the bill. Now she oversees an organization that works on 1,700 cases a year, which includes those handled by the group’s staff attorneys and pro bono lawyers.

CABA Pro Bono is small, but mighty. Besides Mendoza, there’s an office manager, a paralegal, a legal assistant and two staff attorneys.

Mendoza recalls that in mid-April 2016, the group found out the government would soon stop accepting residency applications for children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras whose visa petitions were pending. That meant teens seeking work authorization and driver’s licenses wouldn’t be able to get them—unless they got before a judge by the April 30 deadline.

“In the office, we all pulled together. … We each slept maybe two to three hours a night,” Mendoza said.

They prepared 30 cases, and Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Scott Bernstein heard them all on an emergency basis.

“It was something that was really rewarding to be able to help so many kids so quickly,” Mendoza said.

CABA Pro Bono is looking to hire one more staff attorney, and Mendoza is always searching for pro bono lawyers to take on cases. The organization’s caseload is rapidly expanding, but she doesn’t want to stop giving each child the level of attention he or she deserves.

“When we have attorneys really invested in the case and really helping, it goes beyond just the benefit of the green card,” she said. “It goes into helping the survivor feel that they’re worthy.”

Scores of former clients come back and visit Mendoza, often with babies of their own, thanking “Señora Lesley” for making them feel important and helping them take charge of their own lives.

She tries to instill in them the same lesson she gave that English teacher all those years ago.

“I try to explain to them everyone in this world gets help,” she said. “I got help from my parents. I still get a lot of help from my parents … So there’s no shame in needing help.”

Born: 1976, Miami Spouse: Andy Mendoza Children: Andres, Daniela, Mariana and Sofia Mendoza Education: University of Pennsylvania, B.A., 1998; University of Miami School of Law, J.D., 2002 Experience: Thornton, Davis & Fein, associate, 2002-2003; White & Case, 2003-2007; CABA Pro Bono Legal Services, executive director, 2013-present