“You have to admit,” says Michael Siri, posing like a Wrangler Jean model in faded, denim blue work pants, and treating his yellow handle pick-axe like a walking cane, “this is pretty cool.”
A second later the reconstructive tool, with the handle’s butt notched next to his hip, is swung from his right workboot’s side, aligned over his head and tomahawked into a plasterboard wall. He punches it in between the exposed two-by-four wooden studs with the accuracy of a NFL kicker footing a ball through the golden uprights.
After several swings, the steel tooth has demolished the plasterboard like an off-duty pitcher munching on sunflower seeds in the dugout.
“Awesome,” Siri says, his smile reaching limits amid plaster dust that it never experienced above a law journal.
Pro Bono service hours, as reported in the April 15, 2009 Bar Bulletin, increased across the country during the stressful economic downturn of 2008. And since this past July, 850 Maryland attorneys have taken service workshops with the state’s Pro Bono Resource Center. Members of MSBA’s Young Lawyers Section (YLS), during that same time, also contributed to a blood drive, school supplies drive, the Maryland Food Bank and Toys for Tots.
But from the outset of 2009, Siri and his YLS companions took a more active approach when serving needy Marylanders. They set aside their Juris Doctorates and reached for pick-axes, soup ladles, shovels and swim trunks.
“One Bar, One Community”, YLS’s 2008-09 Public Service Project, organizes a community outreach activity one Saturday each month. Siri, the Section’s Public Service Committee Co-Chair, recruits MSBA members to participate, though some events are easier to sell than others.
“Attorneys want to give back to the community,” Siri said in February after leading 14 other lawyers into the Chesapeake Bay for the 13th Annual Maryland State Police Polar Bear Plunge. Disregarding ice along the shoreline of Sandy Point State Park, just outside of Annapolis, on January 24, these attorneys plunged into the Bay and raised $6,000 for Special Olympics Maryland. “If we schedule it, they will come – it’s Field of Dreams-esque.”
Kirk Halpin, a 39-year-old Howard County attorney, heard the guiding whispers while visiting family in India.
“We saw a tremendous amount of poverty and felt the call to serve locally,” Halpin recalls. “In India, these people are just falling through the cracks.”
Halpin signed up, along with 15 others YLS members, to work the Our Daily Bread hot meals program in downtown Baltimore on February 7, the Section’s second scheduled service of 2009.
Volunteers adjusted their green serving smocks when they walked down a rear hallway, through the sizeable stainless-steel kitchen and into Daily Bread’s serving hall. It’s empty except for about a dozen circular tables with just as many seats at each. The Fallsway/I-83 sky ramp and its colossal concrete struts paint the west-end wall through Cathedral-like windows.
Siri and other volunteers (some YLS, some not) sat at one table before the doors opened at 10 a.m. They folded napkins and made small talk.
Ever done this before? You from Baltimore? Who did you clerk for?
Socializing, says Siri, remains a priority in these YLS events. Yet it might also double as an exercise for nerves. The food was prepared earlier, so the Young Lawyers simply provide the service portion of the meal. But hundreds of homeless Baltimoreans will be coming through the doors and a few have been waiting outside in 40-degree weather for half-an-hour. The attorneys, waiting in the Daily Bread’s cafeteria, which averages 15,000 clients a year, are in a state of anticipation like a priest strolling through empty pews hours before Easter Service.
When the doors open though, hesitation is cast aside.
Some volunteers take the clientele’s meal orders (veggie or regular). Some refill their water glass. Some clean tables after clients have left. Some quickly wash dishes and utensils, while others jaunt the clean tools back to the servers. But all feel the same sense of accomplishment.
After 1 p.m., the volunteers sit and eat the meal they served to Daily Bread clients. Halpin, who stocked groceries in the kitchen’s back pantry for three hours, thanked Siri for organizing the event and told him he’d definitely be back to volunteer with friends and family.
“That’s what it’s all about,” said Siri, his short, black spiky hair waffling through the mandatory hairnet. “The goal is to get people coming back on their own.”
Different personal goals were set on March 17 for the group of attorneys running Baltimore’s Shamrock 5k, which has donated proceeds to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in the past.
The Young Lawyers then found themselves on a farm, hoping to prevent runoff that does the Chesapeake Bay harm.
“This was a little different cause its geared towards the environment and not an individual,” says Michael Hudak, who brought his own shovel to YLS’s Save The Bay project on Saturday, April 4. “It helps everybody, especially in our region.”
Young Lawyer Section member Tracy Seedman is ready to work at Newcomer Farm during the Section's Save The Bay event on April 4, 2009
But neither Tracey Steedman, a YLS member and leader of the Section’s fourth “One Bar, One Community” event in 2009, nor the handful of other YLS volunteers at Newcomer Farm thought a Save the Bay event would take them to the Appalachian Mountains.
Over 100 total volunteers planted 1,000 trees in a 2,000 foot stretch of farm land along Beaver Creek, just north of Boonsboro, Maryland. Native shrubs and trees were added to the terrain to help solidify the river bank and prevent algae blooms from ripping the oxygen out of the water, killing the trout and other aquatic life. The group of lawyers, boy scouts and local residents finished the day’s work within a few hours.
The YLS volunteers at the final public service event of the Bar-calendar year did, however, put in a full day with Habitat for Humanity.
It was DEMO-day on May 2, and besides Siri wielding a yellow handle pick-axe, the other attorneys used everything from pipecutters to sledgehammers to demolish the burnt-out interior of a WWII-era townhouse in south Baltimore.
“This is the world’s best piñata,” smiles attorney Laura Pacanowsky while she blasts her hammer through plasterboard a few feet away from a bathtub filled with debris.
Purchasers of Habitat homes put in 200 working hours per working adult before they own the home. After just eight hours, the 16 YLS volunteers understand only a sliver of what many indigent Baltimoreans experience, but that seems to be the project’s intention.
Siri wanted non-YLS Section Council members to step up and provide a more personable kind of service through “One Bar, One Community”, which he intends to join with MSBA’s Public Awareness Committee next year.
“It just makes sense,” he says.