Administer Justice shows need for poverty aid in suburbia
By Janelle Walker For Sun-Times Media November 4, 2013 4:12PM
A porch depicting the challenges of those affected by home foreclosure was part of the “My Neighbor Myself” interactive experience by Administer Justice of Elgin. The porch was built by volunteers and included two TV screens to depict the lives of those who have been helped by the nonprofit’s legal services. | Janelle Walker for Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 6, 2013 6:15AM
ROLLING MEADOWS — Every attendee at Elgin-based Administer Justice’s “My Neighbor Myself” recent banquet received the same letter as they entered.
That letter is similar to the thousands sent in Illinois since the current housing crisis began, telling the recipient that their home has been foreclosed by the bank.
The 700 people attending the banquet, held Friday at The Meadows Club in Rolling Meadows, were invited to experience the stories of some of the people helped by the nonprofit in the past year, said communications director Marty Page.
Those stories included those of a Pingree Grove family where both parents lost their jobs within months of each other; a single father who lost his job of 12 years and wasn’t eligible for a loan modification; and a woman who lost her husband to a brain tumor and then was diagnosed with breast cancer. She also was unable to work because of the chemotherapy, the mortgage was in her deceased husband’s name, and she was at risk of losing her home, too.
Elgin attorney Traci Ellis, a volunteer with Administer Justice, said seeing and reading neighbors’ stories can help residents understand why the nonprofit’s work is so important in the community.
“It changes your perspective,” said Ellis, who also emceed the banquet.
She refers clients to Administer Justice but also knows they see people every day for the problems outlined during the interactive tour.
In addition to personal stories, the interactive tour included staged vignettes — a table overflowing with past-due notices, a box set on an office desk and packed with the personal items to take home, and a hospital bed with balloons and flowers but no way to pay the bills.
“It is not a small issue,” Ellis said. “It is rampant since the recession, and our community is not different.”
Administer Justice helped 6,560 people in the past year, the event’s organizers said, and nearly 40,000 people have walked in their doors since the organization opened them in 2000.
Since their first office in West Dundee opened, said former executive director Bruce Strom, the nonprofit organization has expanded to 13 paid employees and 700 volunteers, including 320 attorneys providing pro bono legal help.
Strom’s last official event as director of the organization he founded was Friday. As of this week, attorney Eric Nelson took over as the new executive director.
Strom is using his experience to create a new organization, working with churches and denominations across the country to create legal services like the one he created here.
Like the biblical Good Samaritan, it is up to the faith community to reach out to help those who cannot do it themselves, Strom said.
Poverty, he added, is closer to the doorstep than ever before. Once just a problem of large cities and very rural areas, poverty is reaching into the suburbs, he said.
It was while he was researching for his book “Gospel Justice” that Strom began hearing about the needs now facing suburbia.
His new organization, Gospel Justice Initiative, would train churches on how to help with legal problems.
Most people think that if you are poor and need a lawyer, you can get one.
That is only the case for people facing criminal charges — not civil disputes or foreclosure, he said.
“We want to teach churches to do just what Administer Justice does,” Strom said.