Project Provides Free Legal Help to Needy Homebound Seniors in the District

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 27, 2009

The young attorney in jeans and black sneakers calls for everyone's attention: "We are witnessing the last will and testament of John Fizer Jr.," she intones.

The retired bricklayer sits on the edge of his bed. His rubber-tipped metal cane rests between his legs. A plastic air tube attached to his nose snakes over his ears and back to a machine in the corner.

The television in his spartan room is on with the volume turned down, and the clock on the wall reads 3:21 p.m.

"Do you consider this your last will and testament?" the attorney asks. "I do," replies Fizer, 67, a burly man with a small moustache. He has nothing, he says, aside from a bad heart. But at this milestone in his life he has his own attorney, and she is working for him for free.

She is Vanessa Buchko, 33, the solitary home-visit attorney with Project HELP, a program of Legal Counsel for the Elderly, which is supported by the city and the senior citizens' interest group AARP.

The small, two-year-old project provides free legal services to needy homebound senior citizens in the District, where an estimated 15,000 seniors are classified as homebound. "If you can get to us, by way of telephone, or your caregiver can, we'll come out to you," said Rawle Andrews Jr., the counsel's managing attorney. The number is 202-434-2120.

Buchko is a soft-spoken native of Florida who graduated from law school with honors, once worked for the FBI and now roams the city in a red Prius with a laptop and portable printer in the trunk. Wearing a lime green polo shirt and big sunglasses, she is also equipped with enormous reserves of patience.

She has been on the job about a year and has helped clients avoid eviction and get wheelchairs, hearing aids, food and clothing, as well as proper benefits. "It's really rewarding," she said. "There are a lot of frustrating days . . . but every once in a while you'll finish a case and you'll think, 'Oh, I really made a difference for that person.' "

One day last week, she and project law clerk Lindsey Leatherman spent a total of seven hours with the bricklayer along with a widow and an infirm church deacon, sorting out benefits matters, finalizing a will and warning the deacon about a possible home-sale scam.

They rummaged for misplaced paperwork, carefully read aloud the text of complex documents and sought a refund from a restaurant for the widow, who was confused about a bill. They stood in the spare, overheated quarters of the aged poor and listened as the clients told of past lives and current troubles and gave thanks for modest favors.

Deacon James Cunningham, 76, who lives in a tiny high-rise apartment on K Street NW, thanked Buchko for his nifty, new electric wheelchair. "It's small," he chuckled. "I can get in and out of small spaces. . . . I think about you when I be on it: 'It's Vanessa that caused me to get it.'

"I just thank the Lord to be living to see these days," he said.

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