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"THEIR PAIN WAS JUST AS REAL": Bruce Strom in the Administer Justice library.

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Hope Award | Midwest Regional winner: In Illinois, Administer Justice helps the poor get their day in court

Issue: "Blind exiled brave," Aug. 10, 2013

ELGIN and GENEVA, Ill.—Bruce Strom swore he’d never be poor. Growing up as a pastor’s kid in a parsonage, he watched his dad draw a meager salary and make hospital visits after the phone rang in the middle of the night. Strom decided to pursue a law career, where he’d never struggle to make ends meet.

Life went according to his dreams. He graduated from law school, married, and started a successful legal firm. If he took calls for help at night, Strom charged his clients 25 percent extra to call him at home—on top of his regular $300 per hour fee. He argued a case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won. Back home, he was a respected church leader and gave generously from his income.

Yet Strom became angry about one area he and his wife couldn’t control—they had seven years of infertility. Strom thought, “God owed me. I mean, I was doing everything right. And it just didn’t seem fair.” But the seeming injustice of infertility started him thinking about injustice in the lives of the poor: “Their pain was different than mine, but their pain was just as real.”

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With assistance from in vitro fertilization, Strom’s wife finally had twin boys in the summer of 1999. Eight months later, Strom founded Administer Justice (AJ), a nonprofit providing free legal services to the poor of Kane and DuPage counties, suburbs just west of Chicago. Since then over 40,000 people have come to the organization seeking legal help: The elderly, single parents, and orphaned and homeless children are frequently victims of fraud and abuse, but often don’t understand the law or can’t afford a lawyer.

Administer Justice helps those who often have nowhere else to turn. Its services are free for anyone with an income under 125 percent of the federal poverty line. Administer Justice has a staff of 12 but a network of over 250 attorneys who volunteer to advise or represent clients as part of their pro bono work. (For clients with slightly higher incomes, AJ offers free consultations and will represent them in court at a reduced rate.) AJ is explicitly Christian but doesn’t require volunteer attorneys to profess Christ.

Clients come to the organization’s headquarters in Elgin, Ill., for help with tax disputes, identity theft, foreclosures, custody disputes, divorce mediation, immigration law, and more. AJ doesn’t attempt to represent most clients in court, but instead focuses on coaching them to represent themselves. Often they simply need counsel in overcoming fear of their situation, interpreting a notice filled with legalese, and understanding what steps to take in response.

On the day I visited, for example, 24-year-old Jose Robledo of Carpentersville had a problem: An ex-girlfriend had custody of their 4-year-old son. He had fallen $660 behind on child support payments while temporarily unemployed and hadn’t seen his son for a month. He wanted to establish a new visitation agreement, or petition the court for full custody, and an attorney outlined for him the first step he needed to take: Get his ex-girlfriend’s address so she could be sent a legal statement.

Much of the advice AJ offers is similarly unspectacular but real. When a client arrives at AJ for an initial consultation, he or she receives a folder with a handwritten note of encouragement, a list of area churches, and Bible verses such as “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.” When clients are distressed about their circumstances, AJ staff use the opportunity to pray with them or encourage them to consider how God may be at work in their lives for greater good.

They have plenty of challenging opportunities: One of AJ’s first clients was a Brazilian immigrant who had mothered a child with her fiancé, a U.S. citizen. When the fiancé died in a car accident, his family took the boy and placed the mother under a voodoo curse. She came to AJ in tremendous fear, but after Strom explained voodoo’s falsity and God’s love for her, she professed faith in Christ. A phone call to police got the child back.

In another case, AJ attorneys discovered an employer pocketing medical insurance premiums of immigrant workers. In a third case, a man stopped for a traffic violation inexplicably found himself under arrest and stuck with a $16,000 IRS bill: Someone had stolen his identity. AJ also runs a low-income tax clinic with the help of an IRS grant: People sometimes arrive with unopened IRS letters they’re too scared to read.

Follow this year’s Hope Award for Effective Compassion competition and vote for the ministry you believe deserves the 2013 award .

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