If you asked Julie Sommers Neuman 20 years ago where she would be today, she might have said Washington, D.C. Lofty political dreams spurred on her early education. She hoped to become a senator—or maybe even the President—and two summers spent working in the nation’s capital taught her that everyone in Washington has a law degree. With that in mind, she became a lawyer and launched her career in corporate law. However, once she and her husband started a family, she put a pin in her original aspirations in order to pursue motherhood fulltime.
In the ensuing years, Julie became involved with the PTA at her children’s school and learned that nearly 37% of the students were Hispanic, many with parents who did not speak English. She says their mothers were “often without papers, living in the shadows,” and it pained her that they were unable to communicate with one another. When Julie became president of the PTA, there were interpreters at the meetings, but she wanted to go a step further. She says, “We started these English classes for the parents, so they were at the school and it was safe and it was a place they could come and bring their kids. We would serve a meal and then teach the parents English.” Eventually, the program expanded to other schools that included Burmese and Arabic speakers. By this point, Julie says, “I got bitten by the bug of loving these people that have come to our community.” When her church took over the English program, she decided to dust off her law degree and practice again, but this time as a volunteer attorney working with immigrants.
After multiple people urged her to get in touch with the Legal Clinic, Julie came to our office and learned how to do intakes with new immigration clients, eventually taking on volunteer cases. She says of her first impressions of the Clinic, “It’s just this little place on the street that you don’t really know is here and then you come in and I think it truly is a refuge for people.” Now, she helps refugees and asylees, people seeking work permits, and victims of great injustice, like domestic violence and sexual assault.
Raised by conservative parents, Julie often found herself on the conservative side of politics, though she says such labels have become less and less relevant the older she gets. She says, “I don’t even know what I am anymore and I don’t think it even matters because your mind and your heart start finding out about issues and things and you start making your own decisions, not based on what political side you’re on.” Becoming friends with the parents of her children’s friends emphasized the blessings afforded her simply by being born in this country. “There but for the grace of God go I,” she says. “I didn’t do anything to deserve this. I just happened to be born in a family that happened to be here [in America].”
Through her work at the Clinic, Julie’s expertise has continued to develop. Recently, she lent her legal skills to a Burmese family her sister is assisting through Exodus Refugee. Julie was able to help the oldest son sort out an error with his ID so that he was able to get a driver’s license and thus a job. Staff Attorney Rachel Van Tyle says of Julie’s efforts, “She got the confidence to do something beyond the scope of the Clinic.”
Although Julie may have started out as a girl dreaming of serving in the Senate or the White House, she is happy with where she has ended up. The work that she is doing now quenches her desire to make a difference. Somehow, through a path she could not have purposely orchestrated, she finds herself working as an Immigration Attorney, pursuing justice for those in need. And she loves it. “I’ve sort of found this as maybe my real mission,” she says with a smile.
Categories: Volunteer Highlight