The Phoenix Unit: Chicago Bar Young Lawyers Make a Difference
By Mercedes Pino
Mercedes Pino is the Editor of The Affiliate and the Director of Career Services at the St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami Gardens, Florida.
The JTDC houses juveniles between the ages of thirteen and eighteen who are awaiting disposition of juvenile proceedings and who can spend anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of years at the facility awaiting disposition of the charges against them. As part of the effort to improve conditions at the facility, one change being implemented is a pilot program to remake one of the eight housing units at the facility. Called “The Phoenix Unit,” the idea is to re-design the unit from the ground up with new staff, new rules, and new training opportunities. Although the entire JTDC houses approximately 400 juveniles, the Phoenix Unit pilot program is working initially with about fifty young men.
As one of its public service projects this year, the CBA/YLS adopted the Phoenix Unit. The decision to adopt the Unit was an easy one according to Rohan: “After hearing for years of the problems there and the efforts being made to improve conditions, I reached out to the new administration to see how we could help. As a citizen of Cook County, I thought it was deplorable that young people would face such conditions without having been convicted of anything.”
Rohan continued: “I felt we owed them better living conditions and a sense that someone cared about them and what happens to them. Most if not all will return to society sooner rather than later, and if we can help them to realize that there is something for them out there other than a life of crime, I think everyone benefits.”
Asked to describe the CBA/YLS program, Rohan explained: “Our efforts are twofold: First, we have launched a collection drive for supplies and materials the Unit needs and that the staff has requested. We basically asked the staff for a ‘wish list’ and are seeking the items for them. They asked for age-appropriate books, educational materials, new or gently used electronics including computers and entertainment equipment, and educational software, among other things. To date boxes of books and several used computers have been donated, and we are publicizing our collections widely, including in the CBA’s monthly magazine and in our electronic newsletters.”
Discussing the second phase of the program, Rohan con-tinued: “Second, we are seeking volunteers who are willing to spend time at the facility to lend their talents to help with organized activities or simply to spend time and talk to the young people. So far, we have received dozens of inquiries from lawyers, young and old, and from law students, many of whom had no prior contact with the YLS to our knowledge.”
Because they must be cleared to work with minors, those interested in volunteering fill out an application and undergo a background check. Volunteers will then be trained by JDTC staff before being admitted to the facility. The program, which kicked off as this article went to press, will allow volunteers to be involved as little or as much as they choose. Some ways that volunteers will be able to get involved include tutoring, life skills presentations, book discussions, and one-on-one chats. Every moment spent with the kids will be a gift. “Center staff told me that an estimated one-third of all the youth at the center receive no visitors whatsoever, and merely taking time to speak to them, and to listen to them, is highly valued,” Rohan added.
Finding a program to support and volunteers was the easy part. The biggest issues, according to Rohan, were determining what forms the CBA/YLS assistance would take and then getting organized enough to have the first meetings with center staff. Rohan commented: “In this case, it started with a call from the CBA executive director to the center administrator, because they knew each other. I then started speaking to the legal staff and got some of my other officers involved, at first in a lunch meeting with some of the key center staff to brainstorm, and then to actually go to the facility and see it for ourselves. That process took longer than I would have liked due to work, travel, and other conflicts getting in the way. The key, however long it takes, is to be persistent and try to make some progress each week.”
Although the program is in its early stages, the CBA YLS is already making progress. “As a result of our adoption,” Rohan told The Affiliate , “the JTDC is now seeking additional corporate and community organizations that would be willing to adopt the other seven units at the center.”
“Additionally, we were requested to see if we could assist in establishing a 501(c)(3) charitable foundation for the Center, so that donors could make charitable donations to the facility,” Rohan continued. “The law firm of Winston & Strawn LLP was gracious enough to offer to perform the legal services necessary to form the foundation, and that effort is underway thanks to their Director of Pro Bono Services, Greg McConnell, and the partners there.”
Through their continued work with the Phoenix Unit, the CBA/YLS hopes to show the broader Chicago community that young lawyers care about their community and are taking an active role to make a positive contribution. Ultimately, the hope in adopting the Phoenix Unit is to make a difference in the lives of the kids with whom they are working. “I can’t pretend to understand what being locked up feels like,” Rohan added, “but I hope that our efforts make them feel like they are wanted and not alone. . . . If we can turn even one of these kids around and get them on the right path, we will have made a difference not just for them, but for their friends, family, and community.”