Today, Janet Stephenson is a retired attorney and serves as a Clinic Board member on the Ft. Wayne Committee. But 20 years ago, while the Clinic was still in its infancy, Janet was inspired by founding Executive Director Abby Kuzma to join the Clinic’s mission as a volunteer. The decision to give her time to the Clinic altered the trajectory of her life. “It was in simplest terms a learning experience on many levels,” Janet says. “But it also was much, much more that cannot be properly described or categorized.”
Janet found the face-to-face meetings with clients during intake to be especially transformative, their needs frequently going beyond the scope of what legal assistance could provide. Although she was able to offer them her legal expertise, their stories were often filled with dark and difficult chapters. “In some cases, we met the face of profound despair,” Janet says. “This is the humanizing encounter and one where Jesus has called us to be present.”
In 1998, she and her husband and two children moved from Indianapolis to Ft. Wayne to care for their parents and to usher them into the next life. But a need for legal services, especially in the area of immigration, continued to grow in Ft. Wayne. It became a major settlement area for Burmese refugees. The Clinic needed to expand its reach. “Fortunately, with the assistance of a lead gift from The Lutheran Foundation and other supportive donations, we were able to open a satellite office in 2009,” Janet says. Boasting just two staff members, Director Desiree Koger-Gustafson and Paralegal/Volunteer Coordinator Catherine Warney, the staff of the Ft. Wayne office is lean and efficient, bolstered by local volunteer attorneys and other nonprofit organizations.
Janet’s roots in the Ft. Wayne community run deep. A grandmother of two, she also serves as President of the Board of HOPE CSA, a unique ministry that offers continuing education and vocational renewal for clergy and others in the faith community. She leads retreats and workshops on creativity and recently completed a course of study in spiritual companionship. But she cites her 6 years as a Board member, working alongside colleague Board member Roger Reece, the local Volunteer Steering Committee, and the Ft. Wayne staff as one of her greatest joys. “Desiree and Cathy are exceptional in meeting the multi and varied demands of this type of work. And yet, it is their compassionate hearts that distinguish them,” says Janet. “I frequently hear comments from the community regarding their compassionate attitude and helpful spirit.”
Janet hopes to continue to see the Clinic’s sphere of influence expand in the coming years, connecting with new potential clients, volunteers, community partners, donors, and nonprofit agencies with a heart and passion for serving those in need. “The soil is fertile for the work of the Clinic here in northeast Indiana,” she says. “And the harvest is assuredly abundant for its participants.”
To learn more about upcoming Clinic events in the Ft. Wayne area, please visit our website.