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Meet the 2023 Beacon Award Winners

Smokeball

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Smokeball

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July 31, 2023

Smokeball Beacon Award Winners

We’re thrilled to announce the 2023 Smokeball Beacon Award Winners. These community heroes were nominated by a colleague or themselves for Smokeball’s Beacon Award, which acknowledges exceptional pro bono work. Our winners’ life-changing work has impacted victims of domestic abuse, immigrant families, homeowners facing foreclosure, and many others in their communities.

Beacon Award Grand Prize & People's Choice Winner

Chlece Walker-Neal-Murray, Chicago Advocate Legal, NFP

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 psycholegal educational 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.

We're thrilled to award Chlece with a $2,500 check and a matching $2,500 donation to the legal aid organization of her choice. Additionally, she will receive a Beacon Award statue and gift bag.

Beacon Award Honorable Mentions

Jonathan Kibler, Southern Illinois Law Center, LLC

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.

Michelle Gehris, Gehris & Associates, LLC  

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.

Poonam Lakhani, The Prinz Law Firm, P.C.  

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, Emerson Law Firm, LLC  

Sandra and her firm have offered pro bono representation to homeowners facing foreclosure since 2011—work that was recognized by Chicago Volunteer Legal Services (CVLS). 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.

Taryn Fisher, Sage Counsel LLC

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.

Continuing to recognize pro bono excellence

If you or someone you know is doing amazing pro bono work, we’d love to hear about it. Submit for the Beacon Guiding Light, a monthly spotlight on a Smokeball client making a positive impact on their clients and community.

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