Today we're talking to truck driver-turned-lawyer Wynona Ward, who brings free legal help to victims of domestic abuse across the state of Vermont. Through her organization, Have Justice-Will Travel, Wynona has helped almost 10,000 low-income women and children. She was recently named a CNN 'Hero' for her work.
Huffington Post: Tell us about yourself and your circumstances growing up.
Wynona Ward: I grew up in poverty on a rural back road in Vermont. When the neighbors heard screaming coming from our home, they turned their heads, and when my family heard screaming coming from the neighbor's home, we turned our heads. Family violence was an accepted way of life. When my mother asked the Minister for help, he reminded her that marriage was for better or worse, " 'til death do you part." The local doctor treated her black and blues and other injuries, but didn't ask her where they came from. If my mother had chosen to use the legal system, she would have been told that "a man's home was his castle, we do not interfere there."
Little did they know, that castle was like a prison for my mother and her children. Spousal abuse, child sexual abuse, and alcoholism were things no one in the community discussed, but for me it was an always-looming family secret. I escaped the abuse by leaving home at 17, but the trauma I experienced as a child will never be completely eradicated. I dream of a day when no child watches her mother being beaten by her father, when no child needs to cover her ears to block out the screams.
HP: How did you go from being a 40-year old-truck driver with no college education to being a lawyer?
WW: After high school, I married and entered the workforce. For 16 years, I traveled cross-country as co-owner and driver of a long-distance tractor-trailer. I realized through my years of travel that rural victims of domestic violence share similar difficulties, no matter what part of the nation they live in. One day, I learned my older brother had abused a young girl, a relative, who had been abused previously by her father. Enough was enough.
I returned to rural Vermont, determined to seek justice and end the cycle of generational violence that was once an accepted way of life. During this period, I earned my bachelor's degree from Vermont College of Norwich University as an off-campus student, using the truck's living quarters as my study space while my husband took his shift at the wheel. Realizing that I had an important calling in life, I decided to further my education and entered Vermont Law School. I devoted myself to becoming a public service lawyer. Using a $32,500 grant as seed money, I founded Have Justice-Will Travel (HJWT).
HP: When did you decide to create HJWT? How many people have you worked with so far?
WW: I wanted to stop the generational cycle of abuse in rural American families. This is an enormous undertaking, but I envisioned simple answers. HJWT measures its outcomes by how many women return to their abusers or go on to other abusive relationships. After 10 years, HJWT can still say that 90-95 percent of its clients do not return or go on to other abusive relationships. Since its beginning in 1998, HJWT has provided services for over 10,000 people.
HP: What does HJWT do for its clients?
WW: HJWT is an innovative, mobile, multi-service model that assists rural victims of domestic violence by providing them with free legal representation and connection to appropriate social services. HJWT serves victims of domestic violence by helping them access the sparse, fragmented network of legal, social and advocacy services available to them. A continuum of in-office and on-the-road services is offered by HJWT for victims that allow them to understand the roots of the abuse, leave the abuse, and achieve the economic and emotional self-sufficiency necessary to end the generational cycle of abuse for themselves and their children.
HJWT is unique in that it is a mobile model that provides free legal services, in-home consultations, and transportation, which are all prevention strategies that work to solve one of the most pressing social problems in this country. Unlike most attorneys who expect clients to come to in-town offices, HJWT attorneys sit in a woman's kitchen or at locations, where it is safe and where the woman is at ease.
The HJWT attorneys provide free legal representation in the courtroom for women and children who are victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and child abuse. In-office and on-the-road legal services provided by HJWT include initial client interviews, pretrial motions, filing for divorce or parentage, and establishing child support, custody, and visitation. HJWT also provides legal representation for protective orders, housing, landlord/tenant, wills, deeds, creditor, and other civil legal issues. HJWT attorneys accompany victims during criminal trials where it is necessary for them to testify. This is especially important when the victim is a child.
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