For the Public Good

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©iStockphoto.com/alexsokolov
©iStockphoto.com/alexsokolov

For many Baltimoreans, their profession offers them a unique opportunity to give back to their community.

Pro bono work is most often associated with the legal world, but according to Barbara Anderson, the concept of donating professional services transcends multiple fields.


“We lean a lot on other pro bono services,” said Anderson, executive director at the Pro Bono Counseling Project, an organization that matches those in need with mental health professionals around the state.

In addition to working with volunteers from the legal profession, Anderson also works with dentists, optometrists and other professionals through her work in the community.

Twenty-five percent of the PBCP’s clients are victims of violence, said Anderson. Whether they were mugged or raped or car-jacked, therapy is often a necessary part of their recovery after the physical wounds have healed, but many cannot afford it on their own. For those who can find an affordable provider, Anderson said she has heard of wait lists three months long.

When the PBCP receives a call from a potential client, the individual is screened for qualification and then matched with a therapist in their area. The organization asks therapists to volunteer to see one client each year and case lengths vary based on client need.

The work, said Anderson, is very rewarding.

“We all say, when we go home at night, I know that I did wonderful things today, I helped a lot of people,” she said.

The Maryland Foundation of Dentistry for the Handicapped helps disabled Marylanders access dental care that their budgets would not otherwise permit.

With the implementation of the Affordable Care Act last fall, medical care was at the forefront of many American minds, but the MFDH, along with the dentists who volunteer with it, has kept a steady eye on Marylanders’ dental health since 1989.

“They’re changing lives and they’re saving lives,” Lilian Marsh, executive director of the MFDH, said of the dentists who donate their time.

MFDH depends on these volunteer dentists to treat the hundreds of patients whose applications the organization receives each year. With just more than 500 dentists currently volunteering, meeting the needs of the patients — all of whom meet qualifications set by MFDH — can be difficult.

“We have 700 people on our waiting list,” said Marsh. For many on the list, the needed procedure is tied to a medical problem. Marsh estimates that at least one call she and her team take each week involves a patient in need of an organ transplant who cannot undergo the operation until they meet the necessary dental standard. Often, she added, the patients have tried to ignore oral problems for so long that, by the time MFDH gets the call, the situation is dire.

“They’d rather pay for their food and medications and leave their dental as the last thing they get taken care of” she said. “Many of them go to the emergency room, but all the emergency room does is give them medication for their pain and for if they have an infection and send them back home. Then they end up back there again.”

At Gordon-Feinblatt law firm, Cathy Bledsoe is in charge of matching attorneys to clients in need of help who cannot afford lawyers’ fees.

In recent years, said Bledsoe, those cases have largely involved foreclosures, but she anticipates a shift this year toward providing legal counsel to immigrant families fighting to stay in the United States.

“There’s so much need,” she said, adding that attorneys can be extremely expensive, and many people who need legal aid end up attempting to represent themselves instead of paying the high cost.

Pro bono work has always been a major part the profession, she emphasized, but a recent decision by the Maryland courts to begin requiring lawyers to report the number of hours they spend each year providing free aid in the community has resulted in a lot more pro bono activity.

At Gordon-Feinblatt, pro bono cases offer new lawyers the chance to cut their teeth and veteran lawyers who work primarily in-office the opportunity to brush up on their courtroom skills.

“It feels good,” said Bledsoe. “It’s like giving to charity.”

In addition to providing one-on-one legal counsel, many law offices also host seminars run by nonprofit organizations that teach lawyers the best practices for providing legal help to pro bono clients. In the near future, Bledsoe said, Gordon-Feinblatt hopes to host a lesson on representing new young Central American immigrants in immigration court.

For many of the professionals at Gordon-Feinblatt, said Bledsoe, pro bono work is part of the job. “It’s part of our civic duty.”

hnorris@jewishtimes.com

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