Wayne Law seeks to expand pilot program offering legal services to veterans

Wayne State University Law School announced today its intent to expand a successful pilot program that provides free legal support to military service members, veterans and the family members of both.

For the past year, Wayne Law students working under the supervision of experienced attorneys have been assisting veterans in Macomb County. The pilot program, Advocates for Warriors, began as an informal partnership with Macomb County Veteran Services to fill a need for providing legal support.

Photo of Jocelyn Benson"We're looking to identify local partners to invest in this program so that we can expand it beyond Macomb County to Wayne, Oakland and other counties in Michigan," said Wayne Law Dean Jocelyn Benson.

Benson was motivated to start the program because of her work as founder and president of Military Spouses of Michigan. Benson's husband, Sgt. Ryan Friedrichs, enlisted in 2011. Until recently, he was stationed with the U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vicenza, Italy.

Benson said she is excited at the prospect of the program branching out to serve other counties.

"It made sense to pilot the program in Macomb County because of its two military bases (Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township and the U.S. Army Garrison - Detroit Arsenal in Warren) and its large concentration of veterans and active-duty service members," Benson said. "But the need for these services is far beyond one county."

Michigan's veteran population is nearly 700,000, yet the state ranked 46th of all 50 states in spending per veteran, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. "Their need for legal assistance in issues ranging from family matters to accessing their earned VA benefits exceeds the support that the legal community is providing," Benson said.

As part of the pilot program, Advocates for Warriors also has worked with WSU's Office of Military and Veterans Academic Excellence to open the program to all WSU students who are service members or veterans, as well as their families.

Sonya Bellafant, who is employed with Neighborhood Legal Services/Elder Law & Advocacy Center as the supervising attorney at the Free Legal Aid Clinic in Detroit, is one of the volunteer attorneys with Advocates for Warriors.

Photo of Sonya Bellafant"Our goal is to train law students to become strong veteran advocates with real-world experience assisting local veterans and their families," said Bellafant, who is pursuing a master of laws degree at Wayne Law. "Advocates for Warriors will partner with state, local and national military and veterans service organizations and other service providers to address the increased need for military and veterans support in the community."

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel wants to see Advocates for Warriors grow.

"Macomb County's partnership with Wayne Law for this pilot program provided much-needed assistance for our residents who served and continue to serve their country," Hackel said. "We look forward to continuing our work with the law school and its students as this program grows."

Engaging law students and ensuring they are well-versed in the legal and non-legal issues faced by service members and veterans is an important part of the program, Benson said.

Grace Cote, a second-year Wayne Law student and veteran who served six years with the Army National Guard, including one tour in Afghanistan, is one of the student attorneys involved.

"In 2009, my brother was critically injured while serving with the Army in Afghanistan, and, in 2010, my father, who had volunteered to serve two tours in Vietnam, passed away from cancer that had developed due to his exposure to Agent Orange. The experiences that my family faced in these two events are the basis of my desire to help build this program," said Cote, who is a member of the Inactive Ready Reserve.

Photo of Grace Cote"I have been the soldier away from home and the veteran transitioning back into civilian life. I have been the family member helping my soldier through the recovery process, but I have also been the daughter listening to the 21-gun salute in honor of my father, my hero. Based on this, I feel deeply moved to help those who are faced with similar situations, and, as a law student, I feel a great responsibility to use my abilities to serve those who have served our country."

Cote's passion drove her this fall to form a new student organization, the Wayne Law Veterans Association, to spread awareness of the legal issues affecting veterans and their families.

"Many people aren't aware of issues affecting veterans and their families right here in the local community," Cote said. "This became even more evident to me this past summer as I was working with clients through our pilot program. I was coming across different issues regarding veterans right here in Detroit that I had never even heard of. As a result, I had the idea to form a student organization that would not only expose these issues to my fellow law students but would also show how they can get involved in these areas and encourage them to use their law degrees to help serve veterans affected by some of these issues."

The Advocates for Warriors pilot program already has helped veterans and service members to address a number of issues they were facing, Benson said.

"What we need now are partners to assist us in covering costs for supervising attorneys, community awareness programming, expenses incurred by students and attorneys as they conduct business, and court and filing fees for veterans who demonstrate financial hardship."

For more information about Advocates for Warriors, contact Brianna Fritz, Wayne Law's community outreach director, at (313) 577-2733 or brianna.fritz@wayne.edu.


Jocelyn Benson
Sonya Bellafant​
Grace Cote

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