Bruce Bigelow is a nearly 20-year Kiwanian who recently retired from administrative law. He has channeled his commitment to providing legal support for low-income individuals into his volunteer work — and he has advice for other Kiwanians about doing the same.
“Since entering private practice in 1980, I have represented individuals defending their professional licenses from prosecutions by state agencies. On only two occasions did they have insurance, so it was always a person against the state. They would often get quite behind in payment and pay a monthly amount, sometimes for years, to finally pay the accumulated fee. On numerous occasions, we made appeals despite balances not being current. I simply could not abandon a client who had a good case and limited funds.”
Six years ago, Bigelow began his channeling this commitment into an organization called Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas. VLS is an Austin-based network of volunteer lawyers who provide legal counsel to individuals without the financial means to hire a lawyer. Formed in 1981, the nonprofit provides free legal advice for civil problems, represent individuals and families or help them to represent themselves in uncontested cases.
“That’s the sort of thing these people need, because they need to know where to go and what to do and how to complain to an agency,” he explains.
All of the individuals who visit the clinics have insufficient income to hire a lawyer but need advice about how to approach state agencies or take advantage of services they may be unaware of.
For instance, at one of the clinics, he met a woman in an abusive relationship who had purchased a truck from her partner — and had the title to prove it — but had yet to receive it. She was afraid to confront him. “I told her to go to the police station and have the sheriff escort her to get the truck,” he says.
“It’s satisfying to help someone who has been wronged who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer,” Bigelow says. “If you listen carefully enough, you can get them to a point where they can take some action on it. Otherwise they are helpless.”
Sometimes it’s simply a case of assisting the individuals in asserting their rights. In another instance, he saw an individual whose insurance company refused to pay for a claim. “I helped draft a letter to get the information proper attention,” he shares.
Bigelow sees a need for other retired Kiwanians to offer skills gained from their career and their Kiwanis service to their community too.
“It would surprise most people how big the nonprofit world is in terms of employment and total business activity,” he says. “Startup nonprofits are pioneered by persons with a vision and no money and often no expertise in creating and initiating an enterprise. For instance, I intend to reach out to a nonprofit (group) of attorneys who provide legal advice on incorporating and most importantly obtaining tax-exempt status from the IRS. Kiwanians with accounting experience are also needed for startup non profits as well as those who understand the nuances of grant writing.” — Courtney Meyer
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