Cooley students reach out to local teens

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By Jo Mathis

Legal News

When Joan Vestrand came to Ann Arbor in 2009 to lead the new Cooley Law School campus here, she knew she wanted to start something similar to what she had helped form while working at the Auburn Hills campus.

Seven years ago, Vestrand started ''Success on Saturdays," a program in which law professors and their students volunteered every other week to meet with struggling Pontiac high school students to talk about overcoming adversity and achieving personal success.

Vestrand soon realized that there were similar needs at Ypsilanti High School. And so under her guidance, Cooley's Ann Arbor campus formed a community partnership with Ypsilanti High School and began several initiatives aimed at providing support and encouragement to the students there.

Cooley students are assisting in after school homework help and mentoring. Last November, Cooley partnered with University of Michigan Law School students to provide a complete Thanksgiving dinner for more than 170 families in need, mostly from YHS.

Other programs include Purposeful Acts of Kindness (PAK) a group of Cooley students who support the school's homeless teens. About to launch this month is a first of its kind Student Court to be held at the high school on Fridays. Cooley students will preside as judges in matters in which a high school student has violated the school's code of conduct. Cooley students have trained the high school peer juries who will hear the matters and determine the consequences for the behavior at issue. Cooley students will also serve as jury overseers and as accountability mentors to offenders to help assure their successful completion of all conditions of disposition. Cooley is also involved in reviving a parent support group at the school - an initiative led by Cooley Assistant Dean Martha Moore.

The latest initiative under development is a program called the ''Circle of Hope.''

Vestrand said that when she first met with Ypsilanti High School Principal Robert Belous, she asked him what students needed most. Without hesitation he said, ''Hope.''

There are many deserving but discouraged students on the east side of the county and many lack the support systems typically in place for youth that age, Vestrand said.

She said she envisions the Circle of Hope as a partnership of community residents, businesses, churches and other organizations standing ready in the wings to assist on word of a student in critical need. Participants in the Circle will have their contact information placed on a partner roster and will be alerted by email when a situation arises where help is needed.

Ypsilanti, Willow Run and Lincoln High Schools, through their building principles, will have the ability to provide word of a deserving situation, she said. Through this collaboration, the community will have the opportunity to promptly receive word, step in, and swiftly make a difference in the life of a particular child.

''Participation on the roster does not in any way create an obligation and no pressure will be exerted to assist,'' she said. ''It is simply a method in which to receive notice of a child in need and the opportunity, if desired, to make a difference.''

Vestrand started a similar initiative in Pontiac and through the partnership, one student's car was repaired to assure his continuing ability to attend school. Another student, suddenly saddled at age 16 with the care of four young siblings, received groceries, other needed items and lots of morale support keeping her on track for graduation and college. A Cooley student went on to purchase the girl's books for her entire first year of college.

Vestrand said there is already word of critical need in Ypsilanti, which has a number of homeless teens in the student population.

The Washtenaw County Legal News became a first partner in the initiative, and designed a Circle of Hope logo for it.

Vestrand launched her idea for the Circle of Hope at a recent meeting of the Eastern Leaders Group, where she is an executive committee member. The ELG is a host of community leaders in eastern Washtenaw County that include representatives of Michigan Ladder, DTEnergy, Comcast, Zingerman's, school superintendents, Eastern Michigan University, county executives and commissioners. These leaders come together about four times a year to talk about education initiatives, streetscape initiatives, and job creation.

Vestrand reported that her idea for the Circle was well received, and that within 24 hours she had more than 30 people, businesses and organizations asking to be included on the partner roster. The Circle will benefit students at Ypsilanti, Willow Run and Lincoln high schools.

Cooley's record of service to the community in the brief time it has been here is noteworthy. Among many other activities, the campus is also involved with Eastern Michigan University's Early College Alliance assisting in initiatives aimed at better assuring the personal and academic success of students in that program.

Vestrand, who presented to the ECA student body on why ethics matter and whose students then helped each ECA student write a personal code of conduct, said, ''We need our youth to think about these things sooner. We need to educate them on the benefits, both personal and professional, of having good character.''

Any person, law firm, organization or business interested in joining the community in the Circle of Hope may do so by sending an email to Dean Vestrand at vestranj@cooley.edu.

Published: Mon, Feb 6, 2012

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