Supporting Children and Families in Limestone County through the John Lewis Fellowship

Grant Recipient

Legal Services Alabama

Awarded Amount

$30,000 over one year

n 2023, the Steelcase Foundation provided a one-year $30,000 grant to Legal Services Alabama to support its John Lewis Fellowship. Legal Services Alabama provides free client-centered, civil legal advocacy to low-income Alabamians, and collaborates with others across the state and nation to find systemic issues caused by poverty and social justice inequities. Its John Lewis Fellowship trains recent law graduates for careers in public interest law and social justice work. Grant funds supported a John Lewis Fellow for North Alabama, who worked alongside LSA attorneys, receiving guidance in litigating civil legal issues for residents of North Alabama, especially around education and family law cases that assist in homelessness prevention.

Hear from Communications Manager Johnna Jackson and John Lewis Fellow Danielle Cassells as they share their insights into this work.

In 2023 the Steelcase Foundation joined forces with Legal Services Alabama (LSA) by sponsoring a newly barred attorney’s participation in the LSA John Lewis Legal Fellowship (JLF) program. LSA is the only statewide provider of free, legal aid in Alabama, and works to fulfill its mission of “providing free, client-centered, civil legal advocacy to low-income Alabamians and collaborating with others across the state and nation to find solutions to systemic issues caused by poverty and social justice inequities.”

LSA launched the John Lewis Legal Fellowship in the spring of 2019 to train recent law graduates who have an interest in rural economic justice for a career in public interest and social justice law to provide social, economic, and legal change while working on legal issues that improve the quality of life for Alabamians with low incomes. In addition to training the fellows, LSA provides a glimpse into the life and work of Congressman Lewis through a speaker’s series and tours that travel in the late congressman’s footsteps.

Funding from the Steelcase Foundation supports Danielle Cassells, John Lewis Fellow in the LSA Huntsville office.

“I was inspired to apply [to the fellowship program] because I was intrigued by John Lewis’s legacy. Knowing who he was as a congressman and the impact that he made – he started young and was so passionate, and that’s something I can relate to.

I’m very much an empath, and this is the kind of work where you can’t sleep at night until you know that someone has housing or their rights are being upheld – it’s a different feeling. I feel he was that kind of person, too; he wouldn’t rest until he saw change, and that’s commendable. I thought the program would be a good way to start my legal career – and, it has been!”

Cassells has a focus on providing holistic legal representation to clients within the Limestone County area. Through her fellowship, Cassells has primarily represented clients in small claims and housing issues, which frequently includes helping students remain in school and retain equitable access to services through relief measures provided by the federal McKinney Vento Act.   

“I make it a point to ask questions that help me identify if there are peripheral issues a client is experiencing. When it comes to Steelcase Foundation’s goal of helping children and families with things like education access, those issues are usually peripheral to the original concerns that bring the client to LSA. I have worked on many housing cases in which the issues were negatively impacting children’s education, as well as their stability.”

When students and their families are at risk of homelessness, the outlook for their educational attainment is poor. The National Center for Homeless Education reports that only 64% of homeless students receive a high school diploma in comparison to 84% of their housed peers. The likelihood of these students dropping out of school increases by 87% and they are 4.5 times more likely to be unhoused at some point in their adult lives.

This is true for students in Limestone County as well, where the high school dropout rate for students in poverty is 11% and the chronic absenteeism rate is 16.3%. Many of these students struggle to attend school and maintain their coursework, eventually leading schools to cut them off from resources and connections that are critical to their educational success.

“My work helps to prevent homelessness and secure the rights of students who are at risk of a disruption to their education for various reasons – whether a divorce custody issue, losing their housing, or a school disciplinary issue, like suspension or expulsion.

Many of my clients are concerned with losing housing in their child’s current school zone because their child may be receiving certain services at the school or is involved in extracurricular or scholar programs that may not be offered in the area in which the family is forced to relocate. Additional issues are created for families when trying to move with an eviction on their record versus reaching a resolution that allows them to have an easier time finding new housing.”

The vital legal representation provided by Cassells protects students’ rights to a quality public education whether they are dealing with the difficulties of homelessness, or experiencing disproportionate punishments that hinder their ability to effectively participate in their education.

“I’m also passionate about supporting students dealing with disproportionate punishments that affect the quality of their education. Suspensions set students back, hurt their grade point averages – and it can damage their self-esteem. Things that happen during childhood and adolescence help to create the adults we become. Like with the school-to-prison pipeline – people’s adult lives are in disarray, but it started during childhood. It started when a teacher told them they wouldn’t amount to anything, or when a school feels more dedicated to punishing them than educating them. Students need to know that they’re supported. I’m glad I get to help create good futures for people by intervening early.”

While Cassells joined the fellowship program by way of South Carolina, she is originally from Kingston, Jamaica. Her unique experience relocating to the US at the age of nine fostered an acute awareness in her for the ways “difference” affects young people.

“When we moved here from Jamaica, I would have benefitted from additional supports to transition into a new culture. It was a shock! My hair was different from the other children, and I spoke differently than them. I was just a kid and had to learn things like US currency. It all had an impact, and I think those experiences have made me more passionate about working in this legal area. The well-being of children is so important.”

Aside from managing legal cases and representing her clients in court, Cassells has further goals of cultivating long-term change in the culture of Limestone County. Rural areas, like Limestone County, tend to grow and develop in insular ways. Outside resources can go under-utilized when communities don’t recognize their names or are unable to access their office locations. Cassells hopes to advance LSA’s presence in Limestone County through increased outreach that is easily accessible by potential clients.

“I’ve reached out to the Children’s Policy Council coordinator about attending their meetings in Limestone County. The organization supports children and their families with economic stability, education, health and safety, and parental skills. They asses the needs of the community and create various initiatives to address those needs, and I would like to be involved in their work.

Due to its rural geography, my clients have described Limestone as a little antiquated in terms of engaging in community resources. The private nature of rural communities can make it difficult to address sensitive needs. I’ve helped one client experiencing issues of domestic abuse to negotiate the details of safely picking up and dropping off her children; the previous guidelines were frequently ignored because the father of her children is close friends with local law enforcement.”

For attorneys considering a career in poverty law, Cassells has this to say:

“This work is worth it, and its important work. Sometimes just being able to stand alongside people who are going through what could be the worst time of their lives is very valuable. People build up a lot of anxiety about problems that require outside assistance, and you have the chance to alleviate that stress through your skills and expertise – it goes a long way, and it means a lot! I’ll get text messages or emails from clients where they say things like, “Thank you so much; you really helped us!” or “I was so scared about what would happen, but I was glad you were there for me, it made a world of difference!”

The John Lewis Fellowship is preparing me for all kinds of legal work. The fact that I get to manage my own caseload is awesome, and I can talk to anyone at LSA about my cases and learn from a variety of experts. The new lawyer meetings are helpful for learning strategies and understanding legal nuances. They even help to keep me up to speed with various outcome trends or how judges are treating different kinds of cases in different counties.

I believe in the John Lewis Fellowship program. The curriculum and experience builds upon itself, so you don’t feel overwhelmed as a new attorney. I get essential courtroom experience. I appreciate how the goal of the fellowship manifests itself in different areas. Whatever the case in front of me is it will usually interact with other social issues, and I get to affect change in multiple places at one time.”