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A Winter Break of Public Service and Lessons in the Creation of a Non-Profit

Thirteen Rutgers School of Law–Newark students spent the final week of their winter break in the Dominican Republic where they helped to build a home for a local family, earned two credits in Non-Profit Corporations and Tax-Exempt Organizations, and helped to establish a non-profit that will send physical therapists to underserved communities around the world. Most importantly, they experienced true “collaborative lawyering” in a way not possible in the traditional classroom.

The concept for the Winter Session in Las Charcas, a village near the Haitian border, grew out of a March 2011 service trip to the Dominican Republic by Associate Dean Andy Rothman ’90 and his wife, Dr. Beth Rothman, that was organized by Cambiando Vidas, a small non-profit operating in the area. That organization, building on a theme developed by Habitat for Humanity, is dedicated to fostering community in impoverished rural Dominican Republic villages. It centers that effort around a one-week project that teams American volunteers with volunteers from the Dominican village to build a new home for a local family. In that week last March, Dean Rothman joined a team of 20 U.S. volunteers and completed construction of a concrete and cinderblock two-bedroom home in Las Charcas, while Dr. Rothman, a professor at Union County College and a physical therapist with three decades of experience, evaluated and treated dozens of villagers for a wide range of complaints.

DR Winter Session trip
Associate Dean Andy Rothman ’90 (standing, far right) and Dr. Beth Rothman (front row, 3rd from right) with the Rutgers Law School, UMDNJ, and NJIT teams and local villagers who worked on building the Las Charcas home. Click here for more photos of the trip.

As intense as that trip was, Dean Rothman thought that still more could be done in a week. He saw the experience as a perfect fit for Rutgers Law School’s tradition of public service, and an ideal model and environment for teaching Non-Profit Corporations Law, a subject he had taught in seminars and in the clinical setting with the Community Law Clinic since 1998. At the same time, Dr. Rothman saw an opportunity to provide a similar clinical educational service in her own area, teaching “field” physical therapy to students working toward a doctorate in physical therapy. Together they developed a program, in partnership with Cambiando Vidas, for the students of Newark’s three research universities that would focus on community building and public service.

The Rutgers Law School group, together with Dr. Rothman and six physical therapy doctoral students from the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ), Dean Paul Dine and three students from the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s (NJIT) Honors College, and the residents of Las Charcas, built a new home for Yoryi and Maricella and their eight-month-old daughter in five grueling but hugely rewarding days. While mortaring cinderblocks, grading the yard, sharing meals and stories, and playing with the children, the students forged deep bonds and friendships with the Dominican people, fulfilling the mission of Cambiando Vidas.

What made this trip different from other Cambiando Vidas-sponsored service trips was its combination of clinical training and education with community building and construction, the real passion of the Rothmans. When work on “the build” ended in early afternoon, Dean Rothman and the law students returned to the hotel and spent the rest of the day studying non-profit corporations and tax-exempt organizations. The class took Cambiando Vidas as its model for developing a new non-profit, known as Physical Therapists Beyond Boundaries, Inc., to support Dr. Rothman’s work.

While the law students were in class, Dr. Rothman and the UMDNJ students stayed in the field, evaluating and treating scores of villagers suffering from a broad spectrum of physical impairments and injuries. At the same time, the NJIT team explored the possibilities of introducing mobile health and new water purification technologies that would improve public health in the area.

In 2013, Dean Rothman hopes to repeat the Winter Session program, and to build on this year’s water quality study and develop with law students a water purification enterprise that could serve all the residents in the region. He also hopes to open the program up to law students from other schools, so that they can bring back to their home schools the experience and potentially serve as catalysts for the development of similar programs based on the Rutgers Law School model.

For her part, Dr. Rothman is delighted that some of the law students who participated in the Winter Session are continuing to work on developing Physical Therapists Beyond Boundaries, and, in coordination with the Community Law Clinic, will see the work through to completion. She expects that next winter, this enterprise will be a new 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization and that through it she and a new group of physical therapy students will be treating villagers in an impoverished community abroad.

Read what some of the Rutgers School of Law–Newark students they had to say about the experience:

“Collaborative lawyering is the idea that we should be in the trenches with the clients, learning what they do, what their objectives are, and what their vision is. That way, we can have a complete idea of what the non-profit should be and prepare the necessary paperwork with an eye towards that vision.”
Arabelys Santos ’13

“The law is but a means to an end. Now, more than ever, it is the pro bono aspect of a legal career that I am most excited about.”
Topaz McKinnon ’12

“Using the experience with Cambiando Vidas as fieldwork for non-profit law class was enlightening, life-changing, and impactful. Without having seen the inner and outer workings of the organization, I do not feel I would have grasped the importance of non-profit incorporation and mission-statement writing in the same manner.”
Fay Clark ’14

“This trip was promoted to us as a charity. When I think about charities, I think about giving to people; in other words, charity is a one-way transaction. But being with the people of Las Charcas, eating the food that they graciously prepared for us, building with them, and laughing with them, has made me realize that Cambiando Vidas is more than a charity – because the giving was two ways. Yes, we were able to help get them the supplies that they need, but at the same time, their desire to give and to teach was in itself a blessing and empowered us in ways that I never could have imagined.”
DeVoia Stewart ’12

“To be perfectly honest, the class could have been anything and I would have signed up for this experience. But, the topic is so pertinent to what I want to do. I would love to work with various human rights organizations throughout the next 15-20 years and then  . . .  open an orphanage monitoring NGOs in Cambodia. I do hope there is a “Part II” to this class as I would love to learn more.”
Mary Orsini ’13

“It helped immensely to actually have a client who would benefit from our knowledge of non-profit law. As a class mostly comprised of evening students, we especially appreciated the rare opportunity to have hands on application of the law as many of us can’t fit clinics or internships into our schedules.”
Jeremy Jong ’13