By Anthe Mitrakos
CHICAGO, IL – Launched to address the Greek-American community’s legal service needs, Hellenic Legal Assistance Services (Hel.LAS) celebrated one year of pro bono work in May. “The clinic has by far exceeded what we had initially expected both in terms of client need and attorney support,” said Cook County Circuit Judge and Hel.LAS Vice President Anthony C. Kyriakopoulos.
Within its first 12 months of existence, the clinic has recruited over 40 Chicagoland area attorneys who have assisted more than 80 clients in total. On average, the clinic assists between five to seven clients a month - the vast majority of whom are eligible for pro bono services.
“Not all the people who walk through our door become clients of the clinic due to various reasons, but at the very least, members of our Greek community have the opportunity to speak with an attorney in a setting which was not available to them prior to May of 2016,” Kyriakopoulos said.
The need for a structured clinic became particularly evident to Hellenic Foundation Chicago’s Executive Director Peter Valessares, after he received several requests for referrals or free legal advice. When Valessares voiced this need to the Hellenic Bar Association, board members decided to organize and launch a formal clinic with the assistance of the Hellenic legal community.
Forming a newfound synergy, the Hellenic Foundation provided the space to host the clinic, offering an additional grant to cover first-year expenses. Hel.LAS now offers people who would otherwise face a significant burden in accessing legal services, with an avenue for relief.
"Hel.LAS provides less fortunate members of the Greek community a safe haven where they can obtain the legal guidance they seek in a comfortable and confidential environment," said Pamela Visvardis, an active volunteer attorney with the organization.
Aside from providing pro bono services, Hel.LAS also addresses the language barriers some Greek clients face, particularly those of older individuals who have limited English language skills or who have recently migrated and plan to stay in the United States.
“Our goal in creating Hel.LAS was to provide our community with legal resources in a culturally and linguistically sensitive environment,” said Eleni Katsoulis, Hel.LAS secretary. “I've seen that in creating this, we're not only helping families in need, but we're seeing how helping others is impacting our volunteer attorneys. This program has become a central part of many of our volunteers' lives because giving back to their community and witnessing the direct impact of their work is priceless.”
Hel.LAS is one of 24 legal clinics operating under the Chicago Volunteer Legal Services (CVLS) umbrella across the Chicagoland area. Most of these clinics are housed in small community centers or churches, and focus on serving the legal needs of Chicago’s ethnically and culturally diverse population. Although the majority of cases involve immigration matters, Hel.LAS volunteer attorneys have also assisted with cases addressing power of attorney, divorce, estate planning, family law, bankruptcy and foreclosure issues, among others.
“I am very proud of what the clinic has accomplished thus far,” said Tom Massouras, litigation attorney for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “We now join other ethnic groups in Chicago in assisting their own people with a clinic who can understand and meet the needs of the Greek community,” he said.
Hel.LAS celebrated its one-year anniversary on May 13 with a special gathering at the Hellenic Foundation, during which the Hel.LAS Leadership Award was bestowed upon Valessares. A Hel.LAS Attorney Volunteer of the Year Award was presented to Maria Trakas, an immigration attorney who has assisted in dozens of immigration cases through Hel.LAS. The celebration also included the unveiling of the clinic’s new website: hel-las.squarespace.com.
According to CVLS Clinic Coordinator Kathy Koester, of the 24 Chicago neighborhood clinics, Hel.LAS is the only one that currently hosts its own website, allowing for greater client accessibility.