In rural parts of Virginia, driving is a necessity. With no public transportation, residents rely on vehicles. But if you lose your legal right to drive, such as Buena Vista resident Shondricka Johnson Loredo, the vast expanses of rugged hills and endless tree-covered peaks are now barriers to keeping a job or retaining the right to vote.
Loredo lost her ability to be behind the wheel a year ago for driving on a suspended license, without insurance or decals. She dropped her coverage after her used car purchase turned out to be a lemon. She did not cancel the tags and in Virginia, you are liable if you don’t deactivate your tags and your car is not insured.
She got pulled over by law enforcement and had to get her vehicle towed. The trek to work at Modine Manufacturing in the following months was long and grueling. “In the hot summer, I walked. In the rain, sleet and snow I was walking,” said Loredo. She lost almost 20 pounds making the 20-minute walk to work, then again to return home.
She struggled with the expenses of getting special SR22 insurance. Her coverage rates increased $300 per month.
Because of courts, DMV requirements and finances, the process to get a license reinstated after it was suspended or revoked can drag on for years.
That’s why the student-led Blue Ridge Mile Clinic was created at Washington and Lee University in Lexington. It’s a collaboration with Drive-To-Work, a Richmond-based nonprofit that assists low income or previously incarcerated clients facing barriers in getting or reinstating their licenses.
Washington and Lee University student advocates are trained during a one semester one-credit course. Fran Elrod, Associate Director of W&L’s Shepherd Poverty Studies Program, has ten student advocates and five more in training. They learn about advocacy and the complex laws involving licensing.
The licensing process can be complicated and time consuming. For Loredo, it was stymied by lack of finances to pay for insurance. Others face problems involving unpaid fines or overdue child support.
Students learn about the systemic challenges in rural areas, and gain an understanding of the district court and DMV practices.
When students finish training, they’re ready to receive a client’s compliance summary. It can be complicated to understand, but advocates are trained to decode the steps.
Student participants include Criminal Justice, Pre-law and Global Politics majors. Sophomore Daniel Reiter is in his second year with the program. “I’ve always been interested in law and community service.” Reiter is considering going to law school after graduation, so this opportunity lets him prepare for that. “I am able to meet with clients and judges and combine my passions into one,” he said.
Clients are referred to the student-run clinic by a judge. The advocates have office hours at Buena Vista General District Court and the Lexington/Rockbridge General District Court. They offer guidance and encouragement, but do not provide legal advice.
“The referrals we receive are individuals who have suspended or revoked licenses or who have never had a driver’s license and also people who had no insurance or car insurance-related infractions,” said Elrod. More than a quarter of clients never had a license, but drove anyway and were arrested.
The idea for Blue Ridge Mile came after Buena Vista District Court Judge Robin Mayer noticed people coming back to court having made no progress in getting their licenses back. She wanted to figure out a way to help, so she thought maybe university students could solve the problem.
Judge Mayer placed a call to Elrod at Washington and Lee University. They brought in Sara Wilson, President and CEO of Drive-To-Work. Blue Ridge Mile was born. “Nothing like that exists, but we can create it,” said Wilson when asked how students could help address licensing concerns. A course was created, with Elrod teaching and Wilson volunteering as a mentor. Wilson’s experience as a lawyer and her vast supply of contacts fill the semester with subject matter experts.
The W&L course attracted Global Politics major Georgia Bernbaum. She took it during her sophomore year.
Once students like Bernbaum complete the course, they can start working with clients for another hour of course credit. “Just working in the legal system, having direct community involvement has been instrumental in my time here at Washington and Lee,” acknowledges Bernbaum.
Bernbaum admits she’s getting more out of the clinic than just a stacked resume. She likes the idea that she’s helped make the long, daunting process a little more manageable for her client Loredo. Thursday morning, they got the news they waited a year to hear. Loredo got her driver’s license.
“This is a great success,” said Elrod. “In two years we’ve reached 75 clients, and 11 people we’ve worked with say they got their driver’s license.”
The staff has noticed a paradigm shift since the program began. Students move from thinking about working with their clients as an assignment, to becoming invested in the person and what they need.
“I am so proud of them,” said Wilson. “I get an opportunity to mentor students who want to make a difference, and it’s exciting and rewarding.”
The hope is to expand the program to other universities throughout the Commonwealth.
Meanwhile, Loredo is planning a road trip to Roanoke to shop for Homecoming dresses with her daughter. And this time, she’s driving legally.