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Pro Humanitate at work: Students and faculty put the University’s motto into action

Laura Dildine (’10), Wendy Parker and Grant Eskelsen (’11) are making a difference. Dildine is participating in a variety of pro bono and volunteer activities that include working with convicted felons as well as helping to start a school library.

Parker, a faculty member since 2003, spearheaded a volunteer effort at a local elementary school that has resulted in more than 100 volunteer tutoring hours. Eskelsen is among those volunteer tutors. He uses his breaks away from learning about contracts and torts to make math fun for fourth-graders.

Dildine says she came to the Wake Forest University School of Law to make a difference, but she didn’t want to wait until after graduation. In fact, the rising third-year law student says it wasn’t long after she first walked through the doors of the Worrell Professional Center that she was balancing classes, trial competitions and pro bono and volunteer opportunities.

One such opportunity was the law school’s initial Innocence Project. Dildine, along with two other law students, worked on a case to determine if DNA evidence existed and, if so, if it could exonerate their client.

“Although our client remains in prison, throughout our work, the possibility of his innocence motivated us,” she said.  “This year, I supervised as a case manager two Innocence Project teams, one of which worked diligently to write their client and visit the scene of the crime to verify eye witness accounts.”

Another was helping three people complete naturalization applications to become U.S. citizens during the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s Citizenship Day in Charlotte last year.

But it’s area children who are benefitting the most from Dildine’s volunteer efforts. Over the past two years, she has tutored elementary and middle school students at Hanes Hosiery Community Center, helping to read pirate stories, work multiplication of decimals and alphabetize spelling lists. This summer, Dildine, who taught at a public high school for six years, is helping to collect books so that the Carter G. Woodson Charter School in Winston-Salem can have a library.

“What is most important about the volunteer work is not that I participated in it; indeed, what is most important is that each and every one of my peers have given of themselves ‘for the public good,’ as well,” Dildine says. “They have assisted clients in the Elder Law Clinic, volunteered at domestic violence shelters, worked at the Children’s Law Center, led a group to rebuild New Orleans, coached basketball at Hanes Hosiery and drafted documents at ‘Wills for Heroes.’  None of us does this work so that we may be able to list another activity on our resumes.  Instead, our work, and Wake Forest’s support of it, is a dedication to Gandhi’s charge — ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’”

Wake Forest law students aren’t the only ones trying to make a difference. Faculty member Parker coordinated a volunteer effort in the spring of 2009 that consisted of 39 students and other faculty members who helped tutor students after school at Kimberley Park Elementary School, just down the road from the law school. Plans call for the program to resume in the fall.

“I wanted to do it partly because I volunteered there before, and I thought it was fun, and I found it personally rewarding,” Parker says. “I also thought it was the right thing to do. And it’s a good break for our students. It allows them to do something meaningful with their spare time and to make a positive impact.”

Eskelsen is a rising second-year law student who was one of the most active volunteers at Kimberley Park. “Some of these students have no one at home to help push them to be better,” he says. “These are kids who are craving attention and some sort of recognition.  So, one or two days a week I make a 30-second drive to a world that is alien to what I grew up with.  I try to find another way to help teach basic math concepts to these kids and to instill a love of reading.  It’s not something that comes easily or quickly to them, usually because they’re so used to being told that they can’t do it.  When they do finally get it, that full-body hug around your legs reminds me why I do it.”

Eskelsen says that in addition to getting away from his law books, volunteering is a great reminder of how one person can make a difference.
“Some days I volunteer not two miles from campus at The Children’s Home, a home for abused and neglected children who have been taken away from their parents,” he explains. “I’ve helped throw a Halloween party, wrapped Christmas presents and made gingerbread houses.  The kids are shy at first, but as you just laugh and joke with them, you can see them coming out of the shells that life has sadly made them build up and become kids again.

“And as I found myself driving between class and all of the other great places in Winston, I remembered that when practicing law, you are always serving others,” Eskelsen says. “Opportunities abound in Winston to put that recognition to use.  All you have to do is drive from downtown up to campus, and you see places where you can make a difference.”

Dildine, Parker and Eskelsen are among dozens of examples of why Pro Humanitate isn’t just a phrase at the Wake Forest University School of Law. While the University adopted the “for humanity” motto when it was founded in 1834, law school students, faculty, staff and alumni personify it on a daily basis.

Many, like Eskelsen and Heidi Perlman (’10), who volunteered during CommUNITY Cares Day, say volunteering is a great opportunity to take a break from their studies and help someone at the same time.  “I did this last year and it was a lot of fun,” she said during the March event. “I love kids so I get a chance to play outside with them and plant some bulbs.”

Mike Miller, who organized both CommUNITY Cares Day and coached one of the youth basketball league teams, among his other volunteer work, says it’s important to get involved outside of law school. “Plus it’s a lot of fun to help show you care about the community and make new, diverse friends.”

Whether it is acting as a guardian ad litem, tutoring elementary school students or providing pro bono legal assistance, members of the law school community are committed to giving back to the local community and staying connected through volunteer efforts.

“Commitment to common good has been a profound characteristic at Wake Forest,” Dean Blake Morant says. “It’s in the DNA of the law school, and I am gratified to know that we have such committed public servants in our student body.”

The law school’s efforts have not gone unnoticed by the surrounding community. Art Blevins, the recreation center supervisor for Hanes Hosiery Community Center, where law students assist with after-school tutoring and youth league basketball, wrote in a letter to the dean that as a result of the current economic crisis, budget cuts have forced the center to devise creative means of providing services to the community.
“The staff, patrons and children of Hanes Hosiery Community Center would like to commend the volunteer services of the Wake Forest law school students with our Fall/Winter youth programs,” he wrote.

“These students have donated their time and efforts to help make sure that our activities are of the highest quality. We would like to thank them all, not only for their assistance, but also for the compassion that they show towards the children in our program. We look forward to continuing the wonderful relationship that we have developed with the students of the Wake Forest law school.”