By Miranda Hines
Shana Wynn, a 2015–2016 Borchard Law and Aging Fellow, may need to clone herself: She is effectively doing the work of two people, fighting on two fronts to ensure that her clients can age with dignity. She works primarily for Justice in Aging, which does policy work; two days a week, she also represents clients pro bono at the Southeast DC office of Neighborhood Legal Services Program, which serves residents of Wards 7 and 8. Shana says that her dual focuses require both “cultural competence and intellectual capacity.” In other words, it’s one thing to solve problems, and quite another to understand which problems people want solved in the first place.
But with her feet on the ground doing pro bono work, Shana can bring her knowledge of clients’ actual needs into her discussions of policy. And when she discusses her work, Shana’s enthusiasm and dedication are clear; she treats her clients with compassion because she recognizes that senior citizens are relevant and valuable to society.
Shana was raised in a multi-generational family, and growing up with her grandparents got her interested in the welfare of aging communities. Yet her specific interest in elder law developed while she attended North Carolina Central University School of Law. While doing pro bono work in law school, she found that many underprivileged communities had limited access to lawyers, and that many people with legal problems didn’t even recognize them as legal problems. This problem was especially acute among senior citizens, Shana realized, and so she decided to get involved.
Shana’s focuses on seniors living in poverty, including those who don’t have family to help care for them as they age. As a Fellow of the Borchard Foundation Center on Law & Aging, Shana pursues economic security for SSI recipients at Justice in Aging, which works on behalf of older adults through economic policy, health policy, and litigation.
Although at NLSP Shana does litigation, rather than policy work, she’s pursuing the same long-term goal. She represents senior citizens who have been denied SSI and SSDI benefits; many of her clients are homeless and need those benefits to survive. Shana helps them file appeals, prepares them for hearings, and represents them in administrative hearings. She focuses on two phases of the SSI and SSDI application process—reconsideration and hearings before administrative law judges—because once a client’s claim has been denied, the appeals process can become very lengthy. A few of her clients have been waiting for years for a hearing and need income assistance in the meantime. “It’s frustrating! Especially for my clients who are experiencing chronic homelessness,” Shana says. “Many in our society have such a negative perception of homeless individuals, but we don’t think about the stories behind it.”
Despite the uphill battle, Shana wins. In particular, she’s succeeded in getting the necessary paperwork submitted during the reconsideration phase and thus sparing her clients from waiting for an appeal and retrial. And she gets inspired when she tangibly improves a client’s life: “I’m not trying to save the whole world, but at least I can save this one person from the things that make life unbearable.”
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Interested in fellowships like Shana’s? Learn more about public-interest legal fellowships at Fellowships 101 on Wednesday, July 13!
Miranda Hines is a student at Washington University and our summer intern.