Public Interest Advocates (PIA) is a student organization at West Virginia University College of Law. The organization consists of a group of students whose main goal is to raise money to fund summer and full-time jobs in the public interest field.
Jennifer Powell, a West Virginia University alumna, has worked as an attorney and a social worker, and now, is the advisor of PIA.
“I love working with the students in PIA and Community Service Council,” she said.
According to Powell, public interest mainly consists of providing legal aid to people who cannot afford it. Students in the PIA organization focus on certain issues of public concern such as child welfare, elderly abuse, and domestic violence, and then advocate for the people affected by those issues.
“The public interest piece appealed to me because it felt like a way to help provide access to justice and to help provide legal help to people who would never otherwise get it,” Powell said. “While I’m not practicing, what I can do is help raise money and raise awareness about those issues.”
According to Powell, some of the organizations that PIA has student fellowships with include ChildLaw Services, which represents children who have experienced abuse and neglect, and Mountain State Justice, a nonprofit legal services firm that helps people who have issues with consumer fraud.
PIA partners with the local nonprofit founded by Charles DiSalvo, West Virginia Fund for Law in the Public Interest, which helps fund fellowships for students at the law school.
“Places like Legal Aid of West Virginia and other organizations can’t really afford to pay students, but they desperately need the help,” Powell said.
PIA hosts an annual Spring Auction to help raise money for these fellowships. All items auctioned off are donated to the community. According to Powell, this year’s auction was even more special because it was PIA’s 30th anniversary.
Students at WVU in the Community Service Council also participate in community service projects and fundraisers. Some of these include cooking dinner at the Rosenbaum House, a center where adult patients and their families stay while receiving medical care; volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House, a nonprofit that supports programs that improve the health and well-being of children; and cleaning up Deckers Creek Trail, a popular hiker’s gem in West Virginia. Powell also encouraged students and faculty to indulge in healthy competition when the Community Service Council organized a food drive.
“We divided it (the food drive) between the three classes and the faculty,” she said. “It really got them competing, but for a great cause.”
In the end, the law school collected 2,000 items of food and donated them to a local food pantry.
“I hope they (my students) will think back and remember all of the food drives, community service projects, and public interest fundraising we have done here and think, ‘I want to look around my community and figure out a way I can give back,’” she said.
Students may come and go through the organization, but Powell has high hopes for every one of them.
“I hope to give them permission to explore all of the options that are available to them once they earn their law degree,” she said.
PIA has helped fund 22 fellowships this summer for WVU law students, with an additional six students working in fellowships outside of the state of West Virginia.
“I would also hope that even if students don’t work in public interest, that we sort of instill in them a spirit of giving back no matter where they go to work, that there are always ways to give back, whether it be community leadership or pro bono service,” Powell said.
Powell talked about how the law school and larger community is the heart of this organization and how PIA couldn’t send students to these fellowships without the community’s help.
“The community does come together (to work on funding), and professors donate items (for the auction), people donate food (for food drives), people come and spend money on these organizations, and they help each other,” she said.
Recently, the Public Interest Organization awarded a student from the WVU College of Law a national award.
“They were just so surprised (at) how hard our students work, not just for themselves but for their other classmates,” she said. “They (the students) are all in this together. We want to fund; why wouldn’t we want to put people to work that want to do this?”
Not only does Powell inspire her students to do good for the community, but she helps teach students the importance of kindness to others and to each other.
“It’s the spirit that I didn’t realize was maybe a little bit unique to a place like West Virginia,” she said. “I mean it is a state that is known to have a high level of people living in poverty and a high level of need, and the students who do this really do buy in, not just for themselves, but for other people, too . . . It’s a good testament to the best part of character of this place.”
To learn more about how to support and donate to the PIA, please click here.