CHARLESTON — A low-income Marion County farmer is receiving legal assistance through a program that reached almost 50 growers during regional presentations the latter part of 2017, said the coordinator for the grant that funds the program during a recent interview.
"We feel the project is really helpful to the communities it serves," Elizabeth Wehner, managing attorney for Legal Aid of West Virginia's grants and training, said during a West Virginia Record telephone interview. "We're clearly in a period of economic transition and it is vital to enable low income people to have the ability and the technical back up and assistance if they want to start up a business or pursue employment."
Attorneys for Legal Aid of West Virginia's Community Economic Development project or CEDLAW (pronounced "seed law") provided a series of regional presentations across the state in late 2017, according to information provided to the West Virginia State Bar in December. In that time, CEDLAW helped with 14 transactional matters for eight small business clients, 23 transactional matters for 18 nonprofits and opened 37 cases to assist in removing client barriers to employment.
The program began with a crossroads meeting between partnering groups and funding that became available, Wehner said. ""We had a fortuitous intersection of Legal Aid learning about a critical need of low-income West Virginians and then learning that there were funds that we could use to address that need," she said.
During the needs assessment meetings that followed, the question came up about the barriers that low-income West Virginian's face when they try to lift themselves out of poverty in their communities, Wehner said.
"We learned that community economic development issues were really a big issue, both in the lack of jobs in many communities across the state during a period of economic transition and employment obstacles that low income people face," she said. "Those can be problems with driver’s licenses, poor housing conditions and old but nonviolent criminal charges that need to be expunged."
As those barriers were being considered, news that a West Virginia State Bar grant that specifically targets economic development, foreclosure and affordable housing would soon be available and Wehner coordinated the grant proposal that eventually was turned in.
"We wrote a proposal cooperatively with WVU College of Law's clinics and Mountain State Justice and we were funded," she said. "In Legal Aid's piece of that, we were funded to hire four attorneys and one paralegal for two-year grant to work in challenged West Virginia communities such as the southern coal fields and in impacted locations on Charleston's west side."
Part of the assistance provided were presentations attended by 49 growers who sell agricultural products through the state's farmers markets and it was at one of these meetings that CEDLAW attorneys met Janet Jones, the owner of Grasshopper Farms (both pseudonyms) in Marion County, Wehner said.
Jones had legal questions about how to expand her business and how to legally enter into an agreement with a local college so that students could gain agricultural skills on her farm," Wehner said. "Jones currently is receiving assistance from Legal Aid of West Virginia. We are helping her with a variety of legal questions and transactions,"
"Jones, and other low-income and disadvantaged West Virginians like her, may receive free legal assistance from Legal Aid of West Virginia. We also assist nonprofits that are doing projects that promote community development to benefit low income or low opportunity residents.
"Finally, our community partners, the nonprofits and the small businesses, refer individuals to us who have obstacles to work, either education or training. License issues, expungement issues or other problems that impact their ability to work or obtain training or credentials. The services we provide are small business startup legal advice, legal advice for self-employed people and advice for establishing employment policies and procedures. We've done contract drafting for third parties, we've reviewed commercial leases and we've done workshops on topics related to starting or growing a small business."