A Smile and a Handshake is More Than Enough – My First Client

11_08_03(1)

The path to understanding the true value of the profession I have chosen perhaps began the day I received my LSAT score. At the time, I thought, how do I best challenge myself now that I have some measure of what I can do and where I can go to pursue a legal career. The challenge itself was what I valued the most at the time. I yearned for the academic rigors, challenging my mind and developing new understandings while I learned the profession. Almost two years have passed and my outlook on the legal profession, and more importantly, on life itself, has changed significantly.

For some, the goal remains to get the best job, which for most might mean the highest salary or a position at the biggest firm in the city. For others, it might mean breaking the barriers and leaving their hometown, heading to New York City maybe, or Washington. Now, I am not trying to judge or demean what is valuable to others. But I believe I now value other things, which within the context of life and humanity, mean to me more than any position, any salary, and any way other way of life. Let me tell you the story of how a smile and a handshake became the greatest measure of success in my legal career so far.

IMG_1291On January 25th, some of my colleagues and I went to Villa Cañona in Loiza, Puerto Rico. We were taking part in a legal brigade, started by one of our local partners, to provide legal service to a community devastated by Hurricane Maria. The goal for us student attorneys was to provide help in any way we could, whether that was interviewing clients, filing an appeal to FEMA, or even being on hold on the phone with FEMA for an hour trying to get a status update for a client. At first, I truly felt helpless in many ways. I talked to some locals and listened to their unfortunate stories. But there was nothing I could do, I was powerless beyond my willingness to lend an ear. That was until the end of our shift, when this gentleman walked in. I’ll call him Mr. Rivera.

Mr. Rivera walked in, looking kind of lost and somewhat helpless. He stood by the entrance looking around until his eyes met mine. I stood up and went over to greet him and ask him how we could help him; as I had done during the whole day. He told me he needed to file a claim with FEMA. Of course, up to that point, we had been filing appeals with FEMA; homeowners that had filed their initial claim and had been denied. But this gentleman had not yet been able to sit in front of a computer, understand the steps he had to take, and file his claim. As had been the process so far, I was ready to refer Mr. Rivera to one of the attorneys. However, once I told them what the man needed, the attorneys felt this was something I could do. Simple, right? Just file a claim.

I sat next to Mr. Rivera, opened my laptop, connected to a wireless hotspot, and proceeded to file his claim. As I asked him questions related to his situation, I had the opportunity to stare him in the eyes. I could almost feel what he felt. We got through it and there was, at that moment, no feeling out of the ordinary. That was until he stood up in front of me, leaned forward, grabbed my hand with both of his, and said “Thank you, young man,” as he let out a pleasant smile. At that moment, some of my colleagues and my professor saw me, and I believe they understood what I had just experienced and what it meant for me. However, for me, someone who is truly not used to exploring his feelings, I have only now, as I write this, just begun to understand what that moment meant for me and for the rest of my career.

The biggest paycheck I will ever receive, the greatest title I will ever have, truly means nothing. Smaller moments of gratitude and humility seem to have a greater impact on my life than anything else. I felt a strong sense of purpose and determination at that moment. Maybe Mr. Rivera will get denied, and someone else will file his appeal. But I was his aid at that moment, someone who was willing to help and be at his side. Since this clinical experience began, I have slowly been learning the true meaning of service; the spiritual concept deeply rooted in our humanity, not just the meaning of the word. However, through that half hour I spent with Mr. Rivera, I saw the outcome of serving; what it means to those I serve. It is not about a selfish sense of gratification, but about putting forth the best version of ourselves, causing a perdurable moment of relief to those who desperately need it. He might never hear about it, but Mr. Rivera may have given me one of the biggest, most humbling, and most important lessons of a career that has yet begun. Thanks to you, Mr. Rivera, a smile and handshake is more than enough.

IMG_1251

“It doesn’t matter who walks through the door, we just want help” – a story of why #UBLawResponds

I serve as a Student Attorney in the #UBLawResponds Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic at the University at Buffalo School of Law. Last week, the clinic was undergoing preparations to travel to Puerto Rico, including many hours of research and training. Being from the island myself, I traveled to Puerto Rico to establish contacts with our local partners and begin preparations on the island. It also gave me the opportunity to visit several municipalities and witness the disconnect in what people in the island’s metropolitan area believe is the actual conditions of things when compared to what is actually happening in the center of the island and other communities.

Last Friday, I set out to visit the Municipality of Naranjito, Puerto Rico, in the center of the island. Not knowing what I would find, I made my drive there early in the morning. I took my cousin with me to help document what we would find; he is a photographer. We also brought several cases of bottled water, in case we encountered people who needed it. We began driving uphill on one of the main roads in Naranjito. A few minutes later, to our right, we saw this road that had collapsed due to a landslide and had fallen down the mountainside. Beyond this collapsed road, we saw houses. Immediately, we were concerned. What about those people? Are they being helped?

Screen Shot 2018-01-23 at 11.00.15 PM
A collapsed road cuts of several houses from the rest of Naranjito

We looked for a place to leave the car, and we walked around the collapsed road, making our way to what seemed to be around 10-12 houses. We stopped at the first house and we were greeted by Margarita Ferrer Rodriguez, the daughter of Blanca Rodriguez and Oscar Ferrer. She invited us in and the next face I saw was Blanca’s. Around her, two of her great grandchildren were playing. Soon after, her husband Oscar came outside, immediately grabbed my hand and gave me a hug. This man was very happy to see me. They both were.

Screen Shot 2018-01-23 at 11.00.31 PM
Blanca and her husband were very happy to see us.

They had not received any help because their house was inaccessible. The municipal government had a water truck route operating daily, but every time they would just drive by. I was even more surprised when they told me they had been without power or water service since Hurricane Irma, several days before Hurricane Maria. She believed no one from the local government knew of these houses. I almost broke down to tears when Blanca looked in my direction, leaned forward in her seat, and told me “I let you in not knowing who you were because really, it doesn’t matter who walks through the door, we just want help.”

Screen Shot 2018-01-23 at 11.00.40 PM
Blanca Rodriguez

We drove to the government building in the town center, surprisingly not too far from where the collapsed road began, and we met with one of the employees from the Office of Citizen Aid. She explained that they were aware of the collapsed road but had not heard fromthe people who lived in the houses beyond. We were appalled when we realized they just assumed they were fending off for themselves. After showing the people in the office the pictures of Blanca’s house and relating what I had learned from my visit, I somehow managed to get the number of the Mayor of Naranjito. I phoned him that afternoon. After a lengthy conversation, the mayor gave me assurance that the municipality would send employees beyond the collapsed road to visit Blanca and her neighbors and lend daily aid.

Much like Blanca, there are many out there in Puerto Rico who are simply waiting as the days go by. They sit inside their houses staring at the door during the day, and they try as best they can to sleep through the darkness at night, unsure of when someone will walk through the door. Four months have passed and there are still people out there facing these conditions and worrying about basic needs.

My visit to Naranjito four months after Hurricane Maria served as a very important reminder. While some people are worrying about the hours they lost at work due to Hurricane Maria, or how to appeal FEMA’s aid denial to repair their homes, there are still people out there simply worrying about making it through to the next day.

We cannot allow ourselves to move on while this need exists. We cannot allow ourselves to forget and carry on a normal life while there are people out there who might not have a drink of water for days. It is up to the rest of us to walk through that door and offer our service. I am proud to be part of #UBLawResponds, and to be able to walk through the door and help however I can.