Women lawyers groups reach out to empower underprivileged girls

For the past 10 years, members of the Broward chapter of the Florida Association for Women Lawyers have hosted a weekly Books and Breakfast Club at the PACE Center for Girls in Fort Lauderdale, which helps at-risk youth. During the gatherings, the group’s attorneys share a bite with the teens and tweens, read together and discuss books, said Jennifer Erdelyi, president of the group, also known as the Broward County Women Lawyers’ Association.

“It gives them informal mentoring and some socialization, and encourages reading,” she said.

The 125-member group also helps stock the Career Gear clothes closet at the center. Erdelyi said the women donate gently used clothing for the girls to wear to job interviews. Members also donate fun gift items like bath gels, body spray, lip balm and purses to the Incentive Closet, to reward the girls as they achieve their goals. The Broward chapter also financially supports PACE’s annual “Believing in Girls” fundraising auction.

“These are girls who have gone through some challenges, and are really working very hard to get themselves on track,” Erdelyi said. “It’s just such a natural fit with a women’s lawyers’ organization to be able to partner with them, be good role models for the girls and help them see that there is a different path that they can take.”

The Broward chapter also sponsors an annual workshop to help Native American women learn about legal issues that affect women and children. Members also volunteer with the Legal Aid Service of Broward County hotline, which gives free legal advice by phone.

“I think the attorneys involved in our group feel a real strong sense of community and feel a need to give back,” Erdelyi said. “We’ve had access to education. We understand the legal process, and giving back to those who are less fortunate and who may not have had those advantages is a priority to our group.”

Giving time and attention to underprivileged girls helps open their minds to new possibilities, said Loreal Arscott, president of the Gwen S. Cherry Black Women Lawyers Association, which serves Miami-Dade, Broward and West Palm Beach.

Each month, volunteers from the 300-member group conduct a monthly mentoring and empowerment program at the Lillie C. Evans K-8 Center in Miami. For the past 10 years, volunteers have gone in to discuss topics such as public speaking, proper feminine hygiene and career goals with a group of 20 to 30 fifth-grade girls.

“This school is an inner-city, or what they’re now calling an ‘urban core’ school, so it’s predominantly African-American students, and unfortunately many of them come from underprivileged neighborhoods,” Arscott said. “For us, it’s important to show them different images of successful black women, to show them there are different roles to aspire to.”

The organization also is planning a fashion show of the do’s and don’ts of how to dress professionally for the PACE Center for Girls in Miami, which is made up of mostly minority students, Arscott said. Members raise money for Safe Place, a domestic violence shelter in Miami, and have a mentorship program with Carol City Senior High School’s law magnet program.

“Many women in my position, including me personally, wouldn’t be here, but for someone else helping along the way,” Arscott said. “Now we need to be those role models, to expose young girls to the things that they might not necessarily be exposed to …. to encourage them, to guide them and to help them along their way.”

Revenge porn — the sharing of intimate images after a break-up as a means of revenge — often victimizes women. The Miami-Dade chapter of the Florida Association for Women Lawyers has taken a stand to help revenge porn victims in a variety of ways.

“Our pet project this year is providing legal services specifically to women and children,” said Ileana Cruz, president of the 520-member chapter. Last year, the group helped lead the Cyberlaw Project, which helped get legislation passed to make revenge porn illegal.

“It is a huge problem, and the victims are mainly women,” Cruz said. “There used to be no remedy — either criminally or civilly for victims — some of whom lost their jobs or have suffered a lot because of revenge porn.” Miami-Dade chapter members continued with this effort by offering free legal assistance to women who are victims of revenge porn, she said.

The chapter also conducted a series of “Street Law” educational sessions for Lotus House, a homeless shelter for women and children in Overtown. Cruz, a bankruptcy attorney, spoke to the women about identity theft and credit. Other volunteers discussed topics such as basic legal rights and how to maintain a checking account.

“Part of our mission is to promote the legal rights of women, and equality and justice,” Cruz said.

Cruz also is a mentor with Women of Tomorrow, which works with at-risk high school girls in Miami-Dade. She visits a school monthly to talk about women and the opportunities in the legal profession. “I come from a really poor background, and when you come from a background like that, it’s hard to see yourself becoming a lawyer,” she said. “It’s really a great feeling to be able to help open their eyes and let them know that they can do this.”