All photos/art by Tibor Nemeth
Every year Wynona Ward, founder and executive director of Have Justice Will Travel (HJWT), a free legal clinic for abused women and children from low-income families, gets a new law school intern. There, on that first day, at the nonprofit’s rural headquarters high on a hill in Vershire, Vermont, Ward delivers her favorite welcome. “You probably traveled some pretty roads to get here,” she says. “And I bet you passed through gorgeous farmland and idyllic towns. And you saw beautiful mountains. Now, let me show you another Vermont–one of back roads, trailers, and tarpaper shacks.”
Growing up in remote West Fairlee, Ward knows that other Vermont. She also knows something about domestic violence and the grinding toll it takes on all those involved. Ward was the child of an alcoholic father; abuse was a constant theme not only for her, but for her mother and four siblings as well. But it was a sexual abuse case involving her older brother and a young girl in the family that put Ward, at age 40, on a path that would turn this longtime long-haul truck driver into a nationally recognized attorney.
To protect the girl, Ward thrust herself into the case, managing details and serving as the bridge between her family and their lawyer. When it was over, Ward’s brother went to prison, and Ward returned to the classroom, determined to help others the way she’d helped this child. She earned her bachelor’s degree, then a law degree. And in 1998 HJWT was born.
HJWT isn’t a legal world of power lunches and mahogany furniture. Ward’s work takes place around kitchen tables, in small-town diners, or in one of several SUVs that she and her team drive as they crisscross the state visiting clients. Even HJWT’s home base is humble: a small, white clapboard ranch, on farmland that rolls right up to it. The bedrooms are the staff’s offices; the cozy living room is stuffed with legal volumes; a long table there serves as a conference area.
With a patchwork of funding–mainly grants, fellowships, and donations–HJWT works to soften the blow of poverty on wives and mothers who are trying to escape abusive relationships. Ward says that too often women don’t follow up on an initial request for a restraining order–not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t have the means to do it. And if they do make it to court, they may find themselves without a lawyer, trying to navigate a legal minefield against a spouse who can afford representation.
“If they lose, they have to go back home, and their lives can become even worse,” says Ward, who reports that more than 90 percent of the women her team works with don’t return to abusive relationships. “It’s really not fair. It’s not just.”
What began with a small $32,500 grant 11 years ago now boasts five offices around the state, employs five full-time attorneys, and has served more than 10,000 people since 1998. In addition, HJWT offers free classes on healthy relationships, job and financial skills, and résumé writing. It’s about empowerment, says Ward, and it’s something she hopes to expand not just to other areas of Vermont but to rural areas across the country.
“When these women get away from the abuse, they just bloom,” Ward says. “They become assured, confident, and want to help other people.” Just as she has.
Learn more: 877-496-8100, 802-685-7809; havejusticewilltravel.org