GOSHEN -- A board of Elkhart County residents are almost ready to provide legal help to people who usually can't afford it.
What's standing in their way is the very thing that they say keeps so many people from getting the legal help they need: money.
The Just Help: Elkhart County Legal Advocacy Center needs another $20,000 before members of its board of directors think its ready to start operation, said board member Michelle Shelly. The center has $30,000 in donations right now. Another $20,000 would put them at half of the donations they think they'll need annually, Shelly said.
It's already obtained nonprofit status and has advertised -- and received inquiries from many qualified applicants -- for the executive director and lead attorney positions, Shelly said.
"We're literally ready," she said.
The board had hoped to open in January, Shelly said, but they now need to wait for more money.
Shelly said the board is most hopeful about several grant applications they've submitted as potential sources of funding.
Just Help would provide legal services for low-income residents on a sliding payment scale -- people would pay what they could afford based on their income. Shelly's medical clinic, Lincoln Avenue Health Center in Goshen, operates the same way.
Research for the center began last year after Norm Kauffman, former city manager for Shipshewana and former dean of students at Goshen College, told members of Assembly Mennonite Church in Goshen about instances where he'd seen people who made too much money to qualify for help from Elkhart Legal Aid Services but still couldn't pay for a lawyer. Shelly said a family of four with an income of $28,000 a year would not qualify for help from Elkhart Legal Aid.
Shelly, who serves some low-income patients because of the sliding-scale nature of her clinic, had heard of similar problems.
A task force was formed, and associate professor of social work Jeanne Liechty helped them apply for a grant from Goshen College to research the issue. She and two students conducted phone interviews. What they found, Liechty said, is that there is a lot of unmet need, and most people weren't even aware of what legal services are out there.
She said they also found that most social service agencies only know to refer people to Elkhart Legal Aid, which can only serve people who are at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level.
"It's clear there's a pretty fragmented service continuum," Liechty said.
Shelly said the center will not perform services that clients can obtain elsewhere, but it can help refer people to the best resource. For example, clients who need immigration counseling will be referred to LaCasa, and clients who would qualify for assistance from Elkhart Legal Aid would be sent there. Shelly said they've been denied some grants because people perceive them to be offering the same services as Elkhart Legal Aid.
"We don't want to duplicate any services," Shelly said. "We don't want to compete. It's simply filling the holes."
Just Help is accepting donations on its Web site, www.justhelplegal.org.