2021 Annual Report: Feature Story
“This is some of the best work I’ve done in my career” – Phillip Westry
In early 2020, Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS) was approached with a unique opportunity. At the time, the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development, in partnership with the Baltimore Civic Fund, was planning to pilot an innovative response to the coronavirus pandemic. This pilot, the Baltimore Health Corps, would set out to hire up to 300 Baltimoreans from communities most impacted by the pandemic to staff the City’s ongoing response to COVID-19.
They needed help to ensure that those new hires would succeed, so the Corps looked for partners who could provide wraparound support. Catholic Charities was selected to provide mental health counseling, and with our background in workforce development, MVLS joined on to provide legal services to each new employee.
By January 2021, 275 Marylanders, 85% of whom were previously unemployed, furloughed, or underemployed, were hired. By then, MVLS was hard at work.
Based on knowledge we have gained over the years of our workforce development program we knew that the new Corps members, now working each day to respond to COVID, would need help with a broadrange of legal issues. As Phillip Westry, former MVLS volunteer-turned full time Baltimore Health Corps Attorney, completed introduction sessions with the group’s new hires, he heard about employees dealing with landlord-tenant disputes, ones hoping to prepare a will, those struggling to obtain past unemployment benefits, ones who needed help expunging a criminal record, and others facing medical or other types of debt. Westry worked tirelessly to provide legal advice, representation, or referral services tailored to each issue.
“This is some of the best work I’ve done in my career” shared Westry, who has counseled 100 of the nearly 300 corps members. “These clients feel empowered when they have an attorney advocating for them.”
While members’ jobs with Baltimore Health Corps are temporary (currently extended through December), this corps model sets out expressly to prepare employees for future career success. One corps member and MVLS client shared: “this project made it so clear that they want to care for our mental health and the next steps of our career.”
An initial report about the Baltimore Health Corps lauded its progress and suggested that it could be a model deployed by other cities. “This program is so powerful because of all the forces coming together: the City, the Mayor’s Office, the Health Department, Catholic Charities, and MVLS” added Westry.
As we look ahead to the coming year, MVLS is planning to apply lessons learned from the Baltimore Health Corps program to our Workforce Development Project. Westry will join Chris Sweeney and Jason Wright to staff the project. Together, they will expand community partnerships, both to provide holistic legal services to Marylanders who otherwise couldn’t afford an attorney and to continue to learn about the structural barriers to full, sustained employment. Along with our partners, they’ll challenge laws that disadvantage Marylanders seeking work.
Westry concluded “There is an amazing network here at MVLS. When a client calls, they might be speaking to me, but they’re getting help from Aja’ [Consumer Staff Attorney], Janice [Low Income Taxpayer Clinic Director], Tim [Tangled Title Staff Attorney], Chris [Workforce Development Project Coordinator] and all our staff attorneys and volunteers. They’re getting help from all of us.”