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The Cause: Domestic Violence Opponent Wynona Ward 

Wynona Ward, who founded Have Justice Will Travel, writes personal notes on a stack of fundraising letters for the organization in her Vershire office. Ward started the organization 14 years ago, travelling around Vermont and offering free legal representation to women in abusive relationships. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Wynona Ward, who founded Have Justice Will Travel, writes personal notes on a stack of fundraising letters for the organization in her Vershire office. Ward started the organization 14 years ago, travelling around Vermont and offering free legal representation to women in abusive relationships. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

The Woman: Wynona Ward, 61, of Vershire.

The Cause: Have Justice Will Travel (HJWT), a non-profit organization founded by Ward after she graduated from law school in 1998. It provides free legal services to women and children in abusive situations.

The Means: Ward and the other attorneys who work for HJWT often drive to women’s homes to provide legal guidance and representation, as well as counseling about other available services.

The Impetus: Having grown up in a family that included both abusers and victims, she graduated from Thetford Academy, worked as a secretary in Hanover and then for 14 years traveled cross-country as a trucker with her husband. She eventually enrolled in Vermont Law School, where she studied and dealt with abuse cases while a student intern at the school’s free legal clinic.

At the time I started Have Justice Will Travel, there were victim advocacy groups around the state, which are so important with helping women with shelter and in court sometimes, but I realized there were no (free) attorneys. And that is when I came up with the idea of HJWT, because, many times, women don’t come back to court because they don’t have a way to get there. Also, I realized these women don’t have any money at all to hire an attorney, and the state doesn’t have appointed attorneys for relief from abuse cases. I also realized it is very important for the children to have this safety, because I remembered it really affected me as a child to see my father hit or choke or kick my mother, how scary that was for me.

When I went to law school, I went in with the idea that I was going to more than likely be a prosecutor, a state’s attorney, but realized that this niche was really where I could be around victims much more, and make much more of an impact to help women who are abused and don’t have any way out.

I felt it was really important to go to a women’s home, not only for the transportation issue, but because when we are at the home, we can assess what needs they have. We can sit down with them at their kitchen table, and see where they are living, and decide, gee, do they have food to eat, do the kids have hats and mittens for the winter, do they need heat? What are there needs? Also, it’s much easier for a person to sit and talk with you about their issues when they are in their own home, as opposed to if they would have to come into a fancy office with a lawyer. Now, if a client can provide their own transportation, we do encourage them to come to our offices.

We look at the whole person, and everything they need. Does she need a car, food, clothing, educational skills? We look at the person as a whole, so we can provide her with everything she needs to become independent and strong, not only for herself but for her children. And, it’s not that we necessarily provide these things, but we provide connections to organizations and economic services that get these things to her.

My biggest hurdle is raising money, because all of our services are free, but at the same time, the attorneys I hire are not wealthy, so they receive a salary, as well as the rest of my employees, though we do have volunteers and interns. I spend at least half of my time in the development arena, writing grants, proposals for federal and private grants, doing our annual newsletter. We’ve had difficult times in the past few years as the economy went down. Last summer (2011), I had to lay off employees for five months, and then was able to rehire them as things got better. At the same time, I was seeing more cases come in, because as tensions rise in the home, if there’s not money for food or if someone’s unemployed, those relationships deteriorate, then abuse is more likely to happen, definitely.

It does get discouraging sometimes, especially because we don’t have perfect victims. We don’t have women who cower in the corner and say, “Please don’t hit me”; sometimes they strike back or sometimes children may have acted out in some way that has gotten them involved with the law.

Regardless of the situation, it’s absolutely amazing when a woman comes in and she’s so downtrodden, and so lost and just doesn’t know what she can do to protect herself or her children, and we help her out in all these ways that I’ve described, and six months or maybe a year down the road, she’ll come in and we’ll see a completely different person, that’s now independent and on her own that is doing well. We say, “Yes! She did it!”; that’s the satisfaction that happens. And that’s why we continue to do this as much as we can.

Photograph and interview by Sarah Priestap

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