Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Helping heroes in Philly’s backyard

Sandy Romaszewski helps prepare essential
legal documents for first responders
Sandy Romaszewski was sitting in the Ottsville Volunteer Fire Company in Ottsville, Upper Bucks County, Penn., with one of the town’s volunteer firefighters and his wife. The couple have children, but they didn’t have any type of estate planning in place, not even a will.

The firefighter is a first responder, meaning he is the first to run into a dangerous situation, whether that’s a house fire, accident scene, or natural disaster. Without a will, living will, or power of attorney, he has no assurance that his family affairs would be in order if a tragedy struck.

Suddenly, he and the rest of his fellow firefighters, who were also there getting their estate planning documents, get a call from the 911 dispatcher that there was a barn fire nearby. The firefighters are gone for hours, and Sandy and her fellow volunteers aren’t sure when they will return.

All of the firefighters came back a few hours later, dirty from soot and smelling of smoke, but fortunately unharmed. It doesn’t happen often that the firefighters and other first responders need to respond to calls while they are getting their estate planning documents prepared, but that day clearly stressed the importance of having their estate planning in place.

And that’s where Sandy comes in. As a co-coordinator for Wills for Heroes in Bucks County, Sandy and many other volunteers help first responders prepare these essential legal documents for free. Through community events, first responders respond to a questionnaire that assesses their needs, and lawyers like Sandy prepare wills, living wills, or durable power of attorney documents in about an hour.

Sandy is an alumna of our Paralegal Studies post-bachelor’s certificate program, and recently received the Pennsylvania Bar Association (PBA) Verdina Y. Showell Award for her volunteer work with Wills for Heroes. Working with Wills For Heroes is part of her life’s passion, and she is on a mission to spread the word about the importance of her cause.

Out of Northeast Philly

Sandy was born and raised in the Bridesburg neighborhood of Philadelphia. She attended St. Hubert Catholic High School, and went on to attend Temple University to obtain her bachelor’s degree in English. She graduated from Temple in 1998 and applied to law schools in the Philadelphia area. She was not immediately accepted, so she went to work full time at a law firm where she had worked the previous summer as a legal secretary.

Along the way, Sandy learned how to perform corporate paralegal tasks and never gave up on her dream of attending law school. She wanted to prepare herself for the demands of earning a law degree and had heard great things about Peirce’s Paralegal Studies program through friends, family, and local advertising in the city.

“Peirce has a great reputation and is well-known and respected for offering post-graduate programs,” said Sandy about choosing Peirce. “It also has a great atmosphere for students who are looking to enhance or to change their careers.” Sandy decided to enroll in Peirce’s Paralegal Studies post-bachelor’s certificate program in 2003.

Into the law field

She settled into the program quickly and found that she truly enjoyed the company of peers who shared the same values and excitement about law. “We were learning, growing, and supporting each other,” she said.

Sandy also leaned on her professors for support, all of whom have extensive law experience. Sandy is the first person from her family to graduate from college, let alone go on to pursue graduate education. “I needed people who I could talk to and go to for advice,” she said. “I needed some supporting recommendations as well, and Peirce’s professors were always there for me.”

Once Sandy completed her post-bachelor’s certificate, she felt ready to go on to law school. “It’s always been my ambition to attend law school, and I felt that Peirce’s program gave me the opportunity to hone the legal skills that I had learned since graduating college,” she said. “It also helped me get practical training in reading and analyzing case law, as well as researching and writing legal briefs.”

Sandy was accepted into Thomas M. Cooley Law School in 2005, graduating with her J.D. in 2007. “Between my Peirce education and the years of experience that I had in working in a law firm, I was well prepared and ahead of most of my fellow students in law school,” she said.

After graduation, Sandy went on to work at Fox Rothschild in Warrington, Penn. She heard about the Wills for Heroes program through her friend and former work colleague, Jenni Murphy, and was very interested in its cause. Sandy is a corporate transactional lawyer, meaning she doesn’t attend court to represent cases before a judge, so helping families prepare legal documents for first responders was a great way she could support people pro bono.

Onto making a difference

Sandy volunteered at her first Wills for Heroes event in 2010 and has not looked back. “I’ve had the chance to meet such wonderful people,” said Sandy. “Estate planning is such a difficult conversation to have in the first place, but it is even more difficult because the families of the first responders never stop thinking about whether their spouses or partners will come home after they answer each 911 call. Having their estate planning completed brings them a little peace of mind.”

Sandy currently works as a co-coordinator of the Bucks County Wills for Heroes program, and also volunteers for the chapters in Philadelphia, Montgomery, Chester, and Delaware counties. She always invites current Peirce paralegal students to attend events, giving them hands-on experience working with clients for their résumés and terrific networking opportunities.

It was because of her great service to this organization that Sandy received the Pennsylvania Bar Association (PBA) Verdina Y. Showell Award this past November at a Wills for Heroes event held at the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #5 in Philadelphia. The Wills for Heroes event she volunteered at that morning prepared over 75 legal documents for first responders!

Sandy has some great words of advice for students of the College. “Students should consider volunteering for organizations that provide pro bono and other services, such as the Wills for Heroes program,” said Sandy. “Get involved in organizations you’re passionate about and strive to become leaders of those charities and organizations. It is not only a great way to learn to network and meet business and community leaders, but you are also paying it forward.”

“The first responders and their families are always thankful for the services we provide to them,” she said, “but I tell them that we are thankful for the services and sacrifices they make every day to serve and protect us.”

Thanks for sharing your story, Sandy, and congratulations on your award!