April 7, 2017

By Jeanne Leong

For students at Rutgers Law, pro bono work is an important part of their education outside of the classroom, helping to hone skills and to develop an interest in public service, while providing vital legal services to the surrounding community.

A new program is providing a critical resource for disabled citizens and their families while also giving Rutgers Law students a new learning opportunity.

The Learn, Empower, and Advocate for People with Disabilities (LEAD), project at the Camden campus helps to inform families about local, state, and federal services that are available to them.  The project, founded by 2016 alum Amanda O’Keefe, educates families caring for someone with disabilities about topics such as supplemental security income, Medicare and Medicaid, and services offered by the New Jersey Department of Children and Families and the New Jersey Children’s System of Care.

When LEAD was created, O’Keefe held information sessions at a Camden library branch and at The ARC social service agency, which provides services to people with disabilities. 

Now, Allan Zhang and Emily Preziosa, this year’s co-leaders of the group, are focusing on creating materials to provide information about resources and services to an even broader audience.

Students are creating a pamphlet with details about the various programs available, along with the agencies’ contact information. More information, including easy-to-follow checklists will be available on a website that is now being created. 

“We realized that the people that we were targeting with this information are people who could not readily come out to the presentations,” says Zhang, from Rahway, N.J. “They’re working families. In this digital age the way to do it is to make the information readily available via the Internet.”

With support and guidance from the Pro Bono and Public Interest Program the group is also producing videos that will offer step-by-step information on how to navigate systems and programs including Social Security disability, Medicaid, or Medicare. The videos will be available on the new website.

Preziosa’s involvement in a range of pro bono projects has inspired her to pursue family law when she graduates in May.

During her time at Rutgers Law, she has been involved in three pro bono projects. In addition to LEAD, she is a leader of the Domestic Violence Project and the Planning Estates Pro Bono Project (PEP), which provides estate documents including advance medical directives, to low-income elderly people. 

“Each pro bono project offers specific services and assistance to people need it,” says Preziosa, of Browns Mills, N.J. “I could easily be on the other side of any of these pro bono projects, seeking their assistance and service. I think information is power, and we are giving people power over a part of their life that they may have felt powerless over previously.”

Zhang became interested in LEAD after meeting Preziosa and adjunct professor Herb Hinkle, who was instrumental in creating PEP.   Zhang has been a student leader for PEP and the Domestic Violence Project.

“I grew up poor,” says Zhang. “We had help along the way to better our lives, and I know how hard it is to find services when you need them.  To be able to provide information to get people a few steps ahead to help someone in their family who has a disability to get services, is something that is very gratifying.”

He is considering a career in family law or elder law.

Zhang’s and Preziosa’s work on the LEAD project won’t be completed by the time they graduate in May, but student leaders who take over the project in the fall will continue the work that they started.

“We have been talking to the future leaders of the group about what to do going forward,” says Zhang. “The goal really is for them to ensure that we find the best way to publish the information for the community, and to partner with community organizations to disseminate the information. Hopefully our information will benefit people.”

Rutgers Law Media Contacts:
Mike Sepanic (Camden); Elizabeth Moore (Newark)

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