(Entire Team pictured at Public Counsel of Los Angeles)
by Christianna Kyriacou On November 21, 2008, the USC Mock Trial Team participated in Public Counsel’s General Relief Advocacy Project (GRAP), also referred to as a Homelessness Prevention Law Project. Since 2001, participating USCMT team members have been trained to assist individuals fighting to keep food, housing and General Relief benefits in hearings and other processes in the Department of Public Social Services (DPSS) offices. When team members began to serve as advocates for clients in the DPSS offices, the process of getting relief from the social services workers was greatly expedited. Catherine Casazza believed, “It was really eye opening to see how truly flawed the system is—everyone we spoke to gave conflicting information and I really can't imagine anyone being able to successfully navigate the system without an advocate's help, which is unfortunately what most people have to do.” With the assistance of advocates, the clients obtained their benefits more quickly. USC Mock Trial Team advocates helped make the overall process more efficient. At three Los Angeles DPSS offices, the members worked in pairs to help clients with issues involving general relief, food stamps, eviction notices, and other benefits. Catherine Veeneman explained, “GRAP is a chance to take skills learned in mock trial and use them in the real world to help those in need.” The program was a hands-on experience through which the Mock Trial Team was able to apply their knowledge of the law, advocacy skills, and the training they received at Public Counsel to assist real people in need. Through this outreach program, USC Mock Trial Team members saw the direct impact of their service to the local community. As Davia Craumer said, “In contrast to a lot of other charity and volunteer work, we could see the difference we were making in peoples' lives, by helping them get food and bus tokens for another few weeks. That direct impact was really striking, very touching. They were so grateful for so little. It was a reminder how lucky we are and how much we can do to help those around us.” GRAP is a program designed to provide assistance to those in need. However, the clients for whom Team members advocated taught them the importance of community service and being grateful for what they have. The clients taught their advocates the importance of courage and determination during challenges and economic hardship. “My most memorable client exemplified strength and determination in the face of difficult times. Her genuine struggle touched my heart and opened my mind,” remembered Christianna Kyriacou. “Having the opportunity to defend her and others without being paid, but because they really need and deserved my help, was beyond gratifying. My experience as a GRAP advocate is one I will never forget.” GRAP was a rewarding experience for all Team participating Team members, as Casey Wong recalled, “My experience at GRAP was significant in that it exposed me to the nature of the way poverty is managed by government agencies. I did not expect a bureaucracy as inefficient and lazy as the one that I found at the office we went to. Being able to confront this injustice, and help certain people overcome it was really rewarding.” Supervisiong Attorney, Christine Khalili-Borna, remarked of the Team members, "Not only were they engaged and active participants in the training, but they were also fantastic advocates. Attorney Khalili- Borna was "really struck by how mature, capable and thorough they were with our clients." Public Counsel’s GRAP program enabled USC Mock Trial Team members to give back to their community. They put their trial advocacy skills to good use by participating in GRAP and gained valuable experiences serving some of their first clients.