Meet Clarissa Gaff, Land of Lincoln Legal Aid
Clarissa Gaff is the newly appointed Executive Director of Land of Lincoln Legal Aid (formerly Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation). Clarissa has been on staff at LOLLA for 12 years and served as the Managing Attorney of the Western Regional Office for four of those years.
What inspired you to get into the legal aid field?
Before going to law school, I spent some time working for labor unions. I loved the people, the work, the camaraderie and I loved union culture. I went to law school hoping to hone my chops for further union or policy work.
During law school, I clerked with the ACLU, the United Steelworkers and the NLRB. In my last semester of law school, I served at a clinic placement in the HIV Unit at Legal Services of Eastern Missouri (LSEM). It seems trite to say it, but it irrevocably changed my life. I never looked back. I loved working with clients and my stint at LSEM opened my eyes to how important it is for people without means to be represented in the court system—particularly when the things most important to them—their children, their home, their health, their sources of income—are at risk.
As the new head of Land of Lincoln Legal Aid, what do you see as the biggest challenge, as well as the biggest opportunity, facing the organization?
Unquestionably, our greatest challenge is funding. With over 600,000 Illinoisans eligible for our help, we cannot begin to deliver services to all of them. This is another challenge in and of itself: how can we ensure that the work we do has an impact well beyond the clients we serve and improves the lives of other low-income Illinoisans who have never even heard of us?
A good opportunity for our organization is strategic planning later this year after we’ve completed a (hopefully) robust client needs assessment. This is a great opportunity to take stock of who we are, what our clients need, and reimagine and vision our work for the next five years, including how we’re going to meet our challenges, like the two I noted above.
What would you like elected officials to know about the people Land of Lincoln serves?
We help Illinoisans of all stripes and backgrounds—including their friends and neighbors, their fellow church members and their children’s classmates, their constituents, as well as senior citizens, veterans and active duty service members, children, parents, and grandparents. Many of our clients work or may be on a fixed income due to disability, but when faced with a crisis, they can’t afford an attorney.
Can you imagine facing a judge without an attorney when the things that matter most to you—your children, your home, your livelihood—are on the line? It’s unfathomable for most of us, but many Illinoisans face court alone. That’s where Land of Lincoln comes in. When legal aid can assist them, our clients really believe there is justice for all in America, not just those with means. The availability of civil legal aid can reaffirm Illinoisans’ faith in government and in the law.
If you were given a week off with nothing on your to-do list, how would you spend it?
Honestly, I have young kids and if they happened to be in school during this miraculous week, I would probably go by myself to visit my brother and his family in Cameroon. I would love to see them, and there is a great ape sanctuary just outside the city where they live, which I would also like to visit.
If my kids were out of school, international travel is probably out of the question, so I’d probably take them to a city where we could get good food, visit interesting places like historical sites or natural history museums, do a few kid things. Charleston maybe, or Boston. If I assure my four-year-old that wherever we visit will have chicken nuggets, she’ll agree to go anywhere. I don’t think they have chicken nuggets in Cameroon, though.
Land of Lincoln Legal Aid provides civil legal services to low-income families as well as seniors and Veterans across 65 central and southern Illinois counties. LOLLA has been an IEJF grantee since its inaugural grant cycle in 2001. LOLLA is also an inaugural IL-AFLAN grantee.