Some enroll in law school to propel their own professional trajectory. For second-year Rutgers Law–Camden student Amanda O’Keefe, her decision to earn a law degree is fueled by those she aims to represent: individuals with disabilities, individuals like her sister.
But O’Keefe isn’t waiting until graduation day to make a difference. Her family knows firsthand how valuable learning about available services can be, so, as a law student, she’s launched a pro bono project that will educate area families caring for someone with developmental disabilities on what services exist and what steps need to be taken.
Titled Learn, Empower & Advocate for the Developmentally Disabled (LEAD), the pro bono project will host a series of free and public information sessions on topics like early intervention, supplemental security income, and navigating Department of Children and Families and the Children’s System of Care, the 504 and IEP process, transitional planning, Medicaid, and the Division of Developmental Disabilities. The first session will be held at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 19, at the Ferry Avenue Branch Library in Room A in Camden.
According to O’Keefe, the inspiration to create this project and to build a career as an advocate for the developmentally disabled is her younger sister, Paige.
“Paige has Turner Syndrome accompanied by many other developmental delays and disabilities. Until recently, my family has struggled to find services for Paige because what is available is not advertised,” says the Rutgers Law–Camden student.
O’Keefe points out that by chance they discovered that the Division of Developmental Disabilities will provide respite family support services to eligible individuals.
“With respite, caregivers can drop their child off to a program for a few hours every weekend. The program allows Paige to interact with other individuals with special needs in a supportive environment and takes her places we have not had an opportunity to.”
“My family is continuously busy with doctors’ appointments, talking with insurance companies, taking Paige to therapy and accompanying her to afterschool activities, and respite is a huge help in that it gives us a little break and allows Paige to experience new things,” she adds. “However, we would have never known about respite if we did not happen to talk with the right person because services and resources available for people with disabilities are not marketed.”
Over the summer, O’Keefe conducted several interviews in Camden, an effort supported by a Horace and Kate King Wu Fellowship. Her findings furthered her belief that other families are just as unaware about services as her own family. “I think by understanding what resources are available to them, the eligibility requirements of each resource, the step-by-step application process, and the types of services that each resource offers, families will be able to ask the right questions and effectively navigate the systems, ultimately securing more services for the individual that they care for.”
O’Keefe is grateful for those at Rutgers Law–Camden who have helped her put her passion into action. “The endless amount of support, guidance, and time given by fellow students, countless community members, and distinguished faculty members such as Dean Friedman and Professor Hinkle has been incredible. I have learned so much through this experience of developing a new pro bono project and new doors are always opening.”
But Jill Friedman, an adjunct professor and acting assistant dean of the Pro Bono and Public Interest Program at Rutgers Law–Camden, is quick to note that it was O’Keefe’s own tenacity that was key in this project becoming part of the roster of Rutgers–Camden pro bono projects.
“Amanda came to me with a proposal to offer full representation to families with special needs. When I told her our Pro Bono and Public Interest Program didn’t have the resources to support the project she had in mind, she wouldn’t take ‘no’ for answer,” Friedman recalls. “So we negotiated a compromise: advice and information for families in need.”
Better still, one of the region’s most distinguished disability rights attorneys serves as an adjunct professor and mentor at Rutgers Law–Camden. Herb Hinkle, a 1974 alumnus, was honored this past spring by the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities with the organization’s highest honor, the Lifetime Achievement Advocacy Award. In 2013, he was voted Adjunct Professor of the Year at Rutgers Law–Camden. According to Friedman, Hinkle was eager to support O’Keefe’s efforts.
“As always, Herb jumped at the chance to help. Between his expertise in the relevant areas of law and generosity as a mentor, and Amanda’s boundless enthusiasm, we couldn’t lose. Herb set up a meeting with his friend, retired Associate Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court Helen Hoens, who provided valuable contacts in the special needs community, and Amanda hasn’t stopped for a breath since then.”
O’Keefe remains determined that a J.D. will give her the skills to effectively advocate for individuals with disabilities and that Rutgers Law–Camden is the law school that will prepare her for this career. “Rutgers Law–Camden is embedded in the middle of a vibrant community with so much need and the opportunity to help with something that I am passionate about has been wonderful and fulfilling.”