I know everyone thinks most lawyers are jerks, greedy, arrogant, narcissistic, etc.. Well many of us are and I was no exception when I first started. Because of what I have seen and experienced, many of the stereotypical character traits of attorneys are not really me anymore. I am no saint, but have tried over the last few years to see what is really important and to try and focus on the really few close friends I have and also my family. One of the things I also forced myself to do is to do some volunteer legal work. I am not going to say I love doing it because I really don’t like dragging myself down to the closest legal services center, but I do it. I do it because I think it is right and I do it because I see how happy people are to be there talking to someone who actually is taking an interest in their problem and is not interested in personal gain. Sometimes they have been just fighting and fighting and cannot make any headway and it is extremely gratifying to help those people and to take a little weight off their shoulders. Most of the people who show up for these sessions are homeless or close to it, or they are on disability and have very little income. Each day is a struggle to just survive, let alone having to worry about some legal issue. California is a state that it sucks to be poor in because it is so expensive, but at the same time it is a great state because they do their very best to actually help people with things such as Medi-Cal or making it easier to use the courts.
I sign up to help once a month and never cancel no matter how easy it would be to do. If I cancel once, I will cancel every time. Generally someone from Legal Services will call me a few days before I go to tell me how many people are signed up and the general nature of the legal problem they have. For the most part there will be 5 or 6 people scheduled for the 2-3 hours I am there. Their issues are primarily eviction or debt problems. Sometimes it will be a restraining order or something similar. Every once in awhile though there is something you really never expected. This story is about one of those times.
On this particular day there were 6 appointments scheduled but I think only about four people actually turned up for their appointment. The first two were really quick and I was already thinking that I was not going to go back to the office and just enjoy the remainder of the day. The third appointment was classified on the intake sheet as family law but nothing else. The office manager showed them into the back office I was using. It was a couple in their late 60's maybe early 70's. I invited them to sit down and explain exactly what they needed. Here is what they told me.
In 2003, their daughter and her husband got divorced leaving the daughter to raise three children all by herself on a very limited income. The kids ranged in age from 7 to 12 at that time. Even though the parents were divorcing they remained very good friends and the children loved both of their parents dearly. In early 2004, the father of the three children was killed in an auto accident by a drunk driver. The children were devastated, but at least had their mom and of course the wonderful grandparents who came to see me.
Literally within weeks of the death of their father, the mother of the three children went to her doctor because she had not been feeling well at all. She thought it was just the fact that she had started a new job or possibly the stress of the death of her ex-husband. After several tests and several doctors, it was determined the mother had leukemia. Throughout the next year, the kids were shuffled between aunts, uncles, grandparents, and friends as their mom went through chemo and other treatments to fight off this leukemia which was extremely aggressive. The mother lasted only a year and then passed away in early 2005 almost to the day her ex-husband had been killed.
The children were crushed. The entire year had been one big nightmare. From the death of their father to the death of their mother and being shuttled from one home to the next as well as different schools and friends. Sometimes they were together, but for the most part they were not. The problem was that even the extended family was fairly poor and so no one could afford to have three kids at the same time. Therefore the kids were scattered amongst relatives and friends and were not being kept together at a time where it would probably be best for them to do so. There were even some noises from the state because some of the homes and people were not really suitable to be raising children.
The grandparents had come to see if anything could be done and if they could raise the children themselves. Well as it turns out, they could of course apply for guardianship of the children. They applied and the investigators came out and looked around and interviewed the older children about where they wanted to live. In the interim, the children did move in with the grandparents on a temporary basis. A few days before Christmas last year, we finally went to court and the judge granted them permanent guardianship of the three children. Raising the three children was costing the grandparents a great deal of money and they were really struggling. In fact, there was really very little Christmas planned for the family.
My office which knew this tale all too well made sure that the children’s first Christmas under their grandparent’s roof was going to be special and so a Christmas tree was bought as well as countless presents for the children. Food was bought and prepared so the grandparents did not have to worry about it. We even arranged for Santa (actually a jolly actor who used to be on the #1 TV show in America and now usually works for some brothers) to come to their house for a little pre-Christmas visit. All of us were happy to do it and it made Christmas more meaningful for all of us, but something was still missing. It was going to be a great Christmas, but the long term money problems were not going away. The grandparents income was about $2000 a month and it was fixed. They were too old really to go work and they did not have much, if any savings. Something had to be done but they were too proud to really accept charity. They understood about Christmas, but nothing more than that.
So I and some other people started making calls. We called our friends and yes those friends include celebrities. We called and called and at the same time fibbed a bit to grandma and grandpa. I called them to say that the new job their daughter had started right before being diagnosed with leukemia had offered complimentary life insurance and their daughter had signed up. We told them the amount of the policy was $200,000. We had actually raised more but set some aside because of tax concerns.
When we gave them the check three days before Christmas you should have seen how happy they were. They were so proud of their daughter for getting "life insurance" and so happy that they would be able to take better care of the children and to provide more things for the kids. When we came to see them we also brought them a brand new mini-van that friend had donated. They did not want to accept the van but we told them that it was impossible to return something like that and that it would be safer for the children then the vehicle they were using. They finally relented and accepted the mini-van.
It was such a special feeling that all of us had last Christmas and it is funny how over the course of a year that magical feeling kind of leaves you. You move onto other things, other cases and it just kind of fades.
This last week though, was their report back to court date which happens every year until the kids turn 18. This is done to just make sure that everything is going fine, etc. Well as soon as they saw me they started talking about last Christmas and the mini-van and what the money had done for them and just were completely different people than the ones I had seen one year earlier. Seeing them brought back the memories from the year before and just raised the Christmas spirit exponentially. All of a sudden I felt Christmas again and so did everyone who saw them again last week from the office. And the great thing about is that I will be reminded what the Christmas spirit is all about for the next eight or so years until the youngest turns 18.
I hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas and has the chance to experience the same kind of feeling as I was lucky enough to feel. Take care of yourselves and your family and I will see you back here next week.
Friday, December 22, 2006