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Meet the 2023 Beacon Award Finalists

Smokeball

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July 10, 2023

Twelve headshots encircle a badge that reads Smokeball Community Hero

We’re thrilled to introduce the 2023 Smokeball Beacon Award Finalists. These 12 community heroes were nominated by a colleague or themselves for Smokeball’s Beacon Award, which acknowledges exceptional pro bono work. Our finalists' life-changing work has positively impacted veterans, victims of domestic abuse, immigrant families, homeowners facing foreclosure, and others.

Meet the Finalists

Anthoy Naro

Anthony's pro bono practice represents victims of domestic violence through the New Hampshire Bar's DOVE program. He also assists outside of the program, particularly when victims require guidance through the criminal justice system to ensure accountability for their abusers. Additionally, Anthony devotes his pro bono efforts to helping indigent individuals seek annulments of prior criminal charges or convictions.  

Brian Ritchey

Brian's pro bono work assists parents who have endured financial strain and emotional turmoil in custody battles. Reuniting parents who have lovingly raised their children alone for years is immensely rewarding. As a solo practitioner, Brian lacks the means to develop a formal pro bono program but is unwavering in his dedication to all clients, irrespective of their financial resources.

Chlece Walker-Neal-Murray

Chlece serves as the Executive Director of Chicago Advocate Legal, NFP (CAL). Through CAL, she collaborates with community organizations to address legal needs within underserved communities to offer low cost flat fee and free legal services covering a wide range of family law matters. Additionally, Chlece initiated the Preventive Law Initiative (PLI) in 2017, which addresses the underlying issues that often lead families to resort to litigation in court. By promoting the widespread adoption of conflict resolution techniques and legal knowledge, PLI aims to proactively prevent or minimize negative interactions within Cook County's family court system. The initiative organizes workshops, clinics, and psycholegaleducational group sessions, with a strong emphasis on serving underserved communities and youth. To date, PLI has successfully assisted over 300 individuals. Chlece also volunteers as an attorney with Chicago Volunteer Legal Services and supervises high school, college, and graduate students in legal internships. She inspires her colleagues and community members to engage in PLI workshops and other pro bono initiatives.

Denise Pekelnicky

Denise proudly represented a volunteer fire department, which provides fire and water rescue services to the community. Denise dedicated over 50 hours of legal work, in addition to regular ad hoc assistance. As a result, the department was able to put funds that that would've otherwise been spent on legal fees to training and equipment for volunteers. Denise is also actively involved in various pro bono initiatives through the Erie County Bar Association.  

Jonathan Kibler

With a deep commitment to justice, Jonathan has dedicated himself to providing extensive pro bono and "low bono" legal services to parents and foster parents involved in complex juvenile abuse and neglect cases. These families face barriers due to the complexity of the law, sealed cases, and financial limitations. Jonathan has gone to extreme investments of personal time to obtain justice for his clients and has successfully reunited families. Jonathan's work is not visible to the public, but he strives for positive change in the court system, aiming for legal representation at preliminary stages.  

Michele Freeman

As a dedicated advocate, Michele offers pro bono services as a guardian ad litem for Indian Child Welfare at Citizen Potawatomi Nation in Shawnee, Oklahoma. She is involved from the beginning until reunification or termination and works tirelessly to represent the best interests of deprived children. On average, Michele handles 15 of these cases at time, most of which span a year or more. Michele goes the extra mile—sometimes literally, driving out-of-state to investigate and report to the Court. Pro bono work is her way of giving back to a community she deeply cares about.  

Michelle Gehris

In the challenging realm of family law, Prairie State Legal Services provides pro bono services to the abused, elderly, Spanish-speaking, and impoverished. But PSLS is inundated with clients. When in need of attorneys, Michelle steps up and has recently resolved 13 cases. Seeing her dedication has inspired many other attorneys to assist PSLS. Michelle is driven to empower individuals to break free from their abusers and to help make a difference.

Nancy Chausow Shafer

Nancy performs individual pro bono cases for victims of domestic violence, military personnel, and others. She expands her approach to pro bono work by providing CLE and training for attorneys seeking a deeper understanding and assistance in resolving disputes over support calculations and financial analysis in their case. Nancy also provides Family Law software for free to those in need for a multi-dimensional approach to her pro bono work.

Poonam Lakhani

Poonam recently aided Indian immigrants who were employed at a motel with the promise of legal residency. This family endured horrible living and working conditions while their trafficker threatened them with deportation and separation from their child. Poonam combined wage theft claims with litigation under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act to secure a handsome settlement for her clients. She has since worked to educate the legal community on labor trafficking through educational blog posts and speaking engagements.  

Sandra Emerson

Sandra and her firm have offered pro bono representation to homeowners facing foreclosure since 2011—work that was recognized by Chicago Volunteer Legal Services. Sandra actively encourages other lawyers to engage in pro bono work, as it brings immense satisfaction to help those in need. Beyond legal assistance, Sandra strives to provide comfort and a sense of tranquility to distressed homeowners, recognizing the deep personal connection they have with their homes.

Skiles Jones

As the chair of the Legal Aid Society's lawyer referral service, Skiles matches individuals in need with helpful attorneys. Skiles recruits other attorneys and firms to participate, with a portion of their fees supporting further pro bono work by the Legal Aid Society. Additionally, Skiles volunteers monthly at the Orlando VA Hospital, connecting veterans with pro bono legal services. As a veteran himself, Skiles accepts at least four pro bono cases each year knowing that veterans are underserved in the pro bono market. Many veterans are just above the income limits but still require vital assistance.

Taryn Fisher

With a passion for service, Taryn mediates pro bono in the small claims and forcible entry and detainer court rooms, frequently helping people avoid eviction. As part of her perennial pro bono work, she's currently providing pro bono assistance to victims of the Highland Park Shooting. Taryn also dedicates her time as a trustee on the Lake Bluff Village Board and as the group lead of the North Chicago Lake Bluff Lake Forest Moms Demand Action. She takes pride in treating all clients with compassion and respect. Her attitude and work has inspired Taryn’s colleagues and fellow attorneys to also engage in pro bono work.

Support our finalists work

Our Finalists make a significant impact on their clients and communities every day without expectation of recognition. But here at Smokeball, we believe selfless acts are worth recognizing. These 12 legal professionals are in the running for the Grand Prize Beacon Award: a $2,500 check, plus a $2,500 donation to the legal aid organization of their choice.  

They’re also in the running for the People's Choice Award, which is decided by you! Support our finalists by voting above for the person you think should win the People’s Choice. Voting closes July 21 and is open to the public.  

Winners will be announced July 31. Follow us on LinkedIn to be the first to know.

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