Oak Park resident Mary Bird, director of public service programs at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, has experienced poverty firsthand.
"My first several years of practice, I worked in the child welfare area," said the trained attorney. "I represented children who were in foster care or living with their parents under protective orders. I worked on class action cases concerning sibling visits among children in different foster care placements and on services for teen moms."
She started her legal career in 1987, when cities across America were reeling from the effects of a popular new drug called crack cocaine. The number of children admitted to foster care skyrocketed during those years. Bird was in the thick of things.
"I saw firsthand how poverty and race affected every aspect of the child welfare system. Inadequately-funded schools had failed many of the children and their parents, it was difficult for the parents to access decent employment opportunities, and few had adequate housing. I saw the effect of a drug trade that took hold under those circumstances and in the neighborhoods where many of the children entering foster care originally lived," she recalled.
The experience ultimately prompted her to start, and strengthen, numerous outreach programs and public interest initiatives at Loyola. Among those are Street Law, a program that sends law students to city schools to instruct children on the legal system; and the Loyola Law Academy, which matches high school students from poor city neighborhoods with law students and working lawyers to exchange career advice and life wisdom.
This year, Bird's body of work was acknowledged by the Chicago Bar Foundation, which gave her its 2015 Leonard Jay Schrager Award of Excellence.
The award, according to the foundation's website, was "established to recognize exemplary attorneys in academia who have made significant and lasting contributions to improving access to justice for the less fortunate."
Answer Book 2018
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