July 10, 2018
Right after graduating from college, I was on a plane headed for a year of AmeriCorps VISTA and was chatting with the man next to me. I’ll never forget when he said: “I used to be idealistic, too. Wait until you have a family and bills, you’ll lose that idealism fast.”
I later found myself a few years into teaching and increasingly frustrated with my inability to help my students and their families access basic needs, such as healthcare, food, and housing. I believed a law degree would be beneficial to doing such work, and luckily this belief proved accurate.
During my 1L year, I went to my career office to talk about the best path to a public interest job. I was told the only way to break in was to procure one of the very few prestigious public interest fellowships and, if that failed, to work for a big law firm for a few years to pay off debt and then transition. I failed to procure a fellowship, and big law was out of the question. I ended up taking a minor detour for two years into plaintiff-side employment litigation, all the while applying to any public interest job for which I was remotely qualified. As soon as an opportunity presented itself, I eagerly pounced.
I started at the Homeless Action Center (HAC) in early 2011, with a six-month position to cover someone’s leave. I’ve now been here for seven and a half years, and it’s hard to imagine ever leaving. Here, I’m able to do the kind of work I set out to do while working with amazing colleagues and clients, enjoying a supportive work environment, and cultivating a satisfying work-life balance.
At HAC, we assist low-income, homeless or housing-unstable individuals with disabilities in securing Social Security disability benefits as well as local cash aid, food stamps, and Medicaid. A secure income goes a long way toward achieving stability for our clients, and this achievable goal really helps when navigating an infuriating and often unfair bureaucracy. I continue to learn more from my clients than I could ever describe. My colleagues are tireless and inspiring; we support each other through difficult losses and celebrate every hard-fought victory together.
Additionally, I was able to take two generous paid maternity leaves, and was fully supported when I requested daily pumping breaks upon my return. I need not panic when I must miss work for a sick child or a personal emergency, as my employer supports the fact that we are human beings with lives and commitments outside of work. I feel respected and valued in all of the ways that matter to me.
No, I don’t own a house. Despite a decade of paying off loans and generous loan repayment assistance, I still have a sizable chunk of debt remaining. I don’t have the retirement planning I “should.” But, I’m doing fine. I’m privileged to have a spouse who makes more than I do, which helps. We are privileged to have everything we need.
Recently I was lamenting to some friends that we are still renters, and one of them pointed out how envious she was that I love my job, my work means a great deal to me, I don’t dread going to work, and I am treated kindly and with respect. It was an important reminder that while I may not be raking in a Big Law salary, I am wealthy in other intangible areas, and I shouldn’t discount that.
So, to the man on the plane, wherever you are: I’m almost 40, I have a husband, two kids, and a dog…and I haven’t changed my ideals. If anything, I’m more idealistic than ever.
Organizations mentioned/involved: Homeless Action Center (HAC)