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Ernest Hooper: Bay Area Legal Services seeks 'Collective' effort from the next generation

Helen Neal-Ali gave her testimony at the first gathering of The Collective, a new initiative by Bay Area Legal Services. Photo by Thompson Brand Images.
Helen Neal-Ali gave her testimony at the first gathering of The Collective, a new initiative by Bay Area Legal Services. Photo by Thompson Brand Images.
Published Jun. 29, 2018

The happy hour crowd buzzed with chatter.

Amid the ambience of Ybor City's Bad Monkey, they nibbled and networked last week, sharing stories about love and life, dreams and drama, career aspirations and college days. It's the language of young professionals, looking to revel in the moment while hurtling toward greater responsibility.

The Collective, however, brought them together to do more than chat about Tampa Bay. Bay Area Legal Services, the nonprofit law firm built on a culture of caring, launched this new effort primarily aimed at young lawyers and young professionals, but it's open to anyone interested in learning about lives that don't always hold an upward trajectory.

Helen Neal-Ali, a life skills coach, stepped forward to explain how Bay Area Legal Services positively altered the course of her life. The firm likes to say it stands at the intersection of law and compassion, and 22 years ago, Neal-Ali found herself at that very spot.

She emerged from an abusive relationship with the help of The Spring in the 1990s, but still struggled with a variety of problems.

"I was living in low-income housing, on welfare, having panic attacks, taking anxiety drugs and having a real good pity party," said Neal-Ali, now 61.

Jeanie Williamson, a deputy director for BALS, met Neal-Ali at a domestic violence survivors event, and invited her to attend a $250 health realization workshop sponsored by the organization. When she explained she didn't have the money to cover the cost, Williamson said it would pick up the tab.

But you really can't put a price tag on what the workshop gave Neal-Ali.

"That first day of the workshop changed my life … forever," Neal-Ali told the crowd. "I have never been the same.

"They told me, 'A thought is just a thought, it's only real if you put action to it.' This allowed me to let go of all of the stuff I was holding onto."

Empowered, she started working with the workshop facilitator to aid young teen moms and guide them to her newfound enlightenment. She also started sharing her outlook with neighbors in her low- income complex.

Within six months after that workshop, she started her own company, Life Changing Consulting & Associates, to help others in the community learn the principles that changed her life.

And it all started with Bay Area Legal Services.

"With Bay Area Legal it wasn't just that I got a lawyer," Neal-Ali said. "I got friends, and I got the support I needed for my children which went beyond what a lawyer would do."

The folks in attendance may have walked in for the food and frivolity, but BALS hopes they walked out with the realization they can craft relationships over craft beer and increase funding for civic legal aid at the same time.

For 50-plus years, the group has helped bring fairness and equality into the lives of foster children, disabled seniors, veterans and others in need.

BALS Council member John Guyton III of Rywant, Alvarez, Jones, Russo & Guyton sponsored the first event, adding to the long list of established lawyers who have helped carry the torch.

BALS currently has 55 attorneys on staff, and 1,000 private attorneys who have agreed to annually handle a case.

Yet when you consider it expects to field more than 60,000 calls from people seeking legal help this year, that's hardly enough. Dick Woltmann, chief executive and president with the group, makes it clear: His nonprofit needs more resources.

So now it turns to the next generation of young lawyers and young professionals, with the aim of cultivating a new source of support -— a collective effort.

For $21 a month, or 70 cents a day, members of the Collective get to attend networking events like the one held at the Bad Monkey every other month. They also can gain branding value by sponsoring the events and referrals through BALS' Linked-In and Facebook communities.

Most important, they get the chance to make a difference in the community, to dramatically alter the lives of people like Neal-Ali.

It's a lot to ask of millennials still grappling with college loans and competitive anxieties. The flooded market of fresh legal minds makes it difficult to thrive as a lawyer in the 21st century.

Yet anyone ever mired in legal trouble understands how a good lawyer can help you survive stormy challenges. The legendary Howard University School of Law dean Charles Hamilton Houston said lawyers can serve as parasites or social engineers, using their skills to solve a community's problems and better the conditions of the "underprivileged."

Even amid good times and great laughs, that thought shouldn't be lost on a group of future leaders. As Mayor Bob Buckhorn often intones, as we rise, we must lift.

Surely, the lifting can be a collective effort. Learn more at tinyurl.com/thecollectivegiving.

That's all I'm saying.