Writ­ing a New Chap­ter in Bal­ti­more

Reader's Digest - - Nicest Places In America -

It’s noon on a Tues­day in Bal­ti­more, and a line is form­ing out­side the Enoch Pratt Free Li­brary’s Penn­syl­va­nia Av­enue branch. One at a time, peo­ple walk up to the end of the line, some clutch­ing fold­ers bulging with pa­pers, oth­ers empty-handed. All are wait­ing for the clock to strike 1 p.m., when the Lawyer in the Li­brary pro­gram will open its doors to any­one look­ing for ad­vice or as­sis­tance from an at­tor­ney. Those seek­ing help range from vet­er­ans who can’t nav­i­gate their way through the com­pli­cated ben­e­fits sys­tem to get what’s com­ing to them to folks who got into trou­ble with the law and aren’t sure how to move for­ward. Some weeks, 600 or 700 peo­ple show up.

“Just five to twenty min­utes of a lawyer’s time can lit­er­ally change some­one’s life,” says Amy Petkovsek, the Le­gal Aid So­ci­ety lawyer who runs the pro­gram.

Lawyer in the Li­brary is staffed by more than 200 vol­un­teers, in­clud­ing lo­cal lawyers do­ing pro bono work and law stu­dents. Ad­vice is free for ev­ery­one. The pro­gram started in 2015 and quickly be­came a life­line.

One woman used Lawyer in the Li­brary to es­cape an abu­sive hus­band. “Be­cause she knew the lawyers would be in the li­brary, she asked his per­mis­sion to come that day,” Petkovsek says. “Now the woman is safely in a shel­ter pro­gram.”

About 60 per­cent of what the lawyers see is re­lated to ex­pung­ing crim­i­nal records—re­mov­ing old, mi­nor of­fenses, for ex­am­ple, or ex­cis­ing charges that were filed but for which the per­son was never con­victed.

“In many cases, we can clear a per­son’s en­tire record,” Petkovsek told On the Record, a pub­lic ra­dio show.

Shan­non Pow­ell had a record go­ing back to 1986. “It looks kinda bad,” she ad­mits, “but that’s not me.” Peo­ple didn’t want to hire her, she says, un­til Lawyer in the Li­brary helped clear her slate. “Now I have a job where I work with 12 home­less women,” she says proudly. “When I see them, it gives me the abil­ity to give them the same love that Miss Amy gave me the day I walked into that li­brary.”

Enoch Pratt—named for the li­brary sys­tem’s first bene­fac­tor—has long been a beloved in­sti­tu­tion in a city

rav­aged by some of the high­est rates of vi­o­lent crime in the na­tion.

“If you go around Bal­ti­more, nearly ev­ery­one has a Pratt story,” says Meghan Mc­corkell, the li­brary’s di­rec­tor of mar­ket­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions and its Nicest Places nom­i­na­tor. Some were helped by the lawyers; some can proudly say they have a job thanks to Pratt’s award-win­ning Mo­bile Job Cen­ter. It’s a mod­ern twist on the old book­mo­bile: a bus that trav­els around the city equipped with com­puter ter­mi­nals and spe­cially trained work­force li­brar­i­ans.

Still oth­ers are grate­ful for the new So­cial Worker in the Li­brary pro­gram, which func­tions like the lawyer pro­gram. Mc­corkell shared the story of a so­cial worker who helped a man learn to read—and the heart­warm­ing out­come. One day the man stood up dur­ing a group ses­sion and told ev­ery­one he was able to pay a bill on time be­cause he could read what it said. Then he read aloud from a chil­dren’s book. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. “These sto­ries hap­pen ev­ery day in­side the Pratt Li­brary,” Mc­corkell says.

Of course, you can still check out books at Enoch Pratt. But as of this year, if you’re late re­turn­ing them, you won’t have to pay an over­due fine. Now that’s nice.

Enoch Pratt is some­thing of a com­mu­nity cen­ter, but books are its beat­ing heart.

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