Student volunteers assist veterans at Bull City Stand Down
Olivia Cole ’17 spent a recent Friday morning talking to veterans about how they might access military benefits.
She was one of 16 Duke Law students from the Veterans Disability Assistance Project and the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program who attended the Bull City Stand Down on Sept. 16 to help veterans and other under-served Triangle residents with tax and benefits matters, or to update, receive, or correct their military records. More than 320 veterans — many of them homeless or financially struggling — attended the annual event at Durham’s National Guard Armory to access numerous services such as eye examinations, vaccines, and haircuts, as well as legal help.
It was Cole’s third time volunteering at the Stand Down. “This event, every year, puts all of those service providers in one place and coordinates transportation to make sure that a lot of veterans can get here and get a lot of bang for their buck by being able to talk to a lot of service providers that could potentially offer them things they need but might not necessarily know about,,” said Cole, whose family’s military ties led her to join the Veterans Assistance Project as soon as she arrived at Duke Law. “
This is how the Veterans Assistance Project gets most of its clients.”
VITA volunteer Jordan Lamothe ’17 helped clients sort out an array of tax problems. “Some people haven’t filed returns for four or five years and they don’t even know where to start,” he said. “A lot of people are trying to put their lives back together after going through tough times, trying to get to a good place financially, but they’re hit with a huge tax bill and they don’t know what to do.” His goal, he said, was to help the individuals he worked with to understand their taxes and connect them to resources that can help them in the future.
“We don’t want them to have to worry,” he said. “If they owe large amounts, we give them information about how they can talk to the IRS to set up a payment plan so that going forward they can feel more comfortable.”
Leslie Lee, a Durham resident in need of tax assistance, said she appreciated Lamothe’s help. “I feel relieved,” she said. “It was a great service and it was free.”
Precious Sampson, who spent 10 years in the U.S. Army, asked for information about veterans’ benefits when she stopped by the Duke Law table. Recently laid off from a teaching job, she wanted to know about the services they offered. “I’ve actually never used my veterans’ benefits, so I wanted to see what was available to me at this juncture in my life.”
Director of Public Interest and Pro Bono Kim Burrucker, one of the key Stand Down organizers, helped train and supervise the student volunteers, along with Stella Boswell, assistant dean of Public Interest and Career Development. “By participating in this and similar events, students learn valuable legal and interpersonal skills while at the same time providing much needed services to our military veterans and other under-served persons.”
Ric Stubbs ’17 focused on helping veterans clean up and access their service records at the Stand Down. “It’s the key to accessing any and all benefits,” said Stubbs, whose parents are both Navy veterans and who hopes to join the Navy JAG Corps after graduation. “We can’t solve all the world’s problems, or the access to justice gap in one go, but veterans [issues] is a pretty worthy place to start,” Stubbs said. “[These are] people who have gone above and beyond and done a lot to earn those benefits, to earn that promise.”