WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. -- The seeds for Barbara Finkelstein’s two-decade tenure as the leader of Legal Services of the Hudson Valley (LSHV) were sown years ago in her native Brooklyn.
Finkelstein grew up in a working class community, where her father worked for the post office while her mother raised the children, one of whom had special needs. “I always had a lot of responsibility and was involved in justice issues, whether it was criminal or civil,’’ said Finkelstein, the Chief Executive Officer of the White Plains-based organization. “I’ve always been involved in social justice issues. We had some difficult times back then.”
While attending Hunter College and obtaining a law degree from Rutgers University, Finkelstein focused on working her way into the law field by serving needy clients. “It’s been a lifelong focus,’’ Finkelstein said. “I worked in a lot of clinical programs and in legal services as an intern.”
The mission of the non-profit Legal Services of the Hudson Valley is to provide free, high quality counsel in civil matters for individuals and families who cannot afford to pay an attorney where basic human needs are at stake. It is the only provider of comprehensive civil legal services to all seven counties of the Hudson Valley
After working as a staff attorney in Queens, Finkelstein moved to Port Chester in 1987. She now lives in Irvington. LSHV, which was founded in 1967, had an opening for a director in 1995 and Finkelstein was hired. The organization had just one office, a handful of lawyers and limited capability to serve Westchester County residents.
Under Finkelstein, the agency has grown exponentially and now serves residents of Westchester, Putnam, Dutchess, Rockland, Ulster, Orange and Sullivan counties. The agency has expanded to 83 lawyers and 19 paralegals in eight offices.
More importantly, it has dramatically increased its workload. In 2015, the office handled 14,213 cases impacting 32,601residents.
“I thought it was a fabulous opportunity to work in the county in which I lived and bring my experience to my community,’’ Finkelstein said. “I relished the opportunity to come in and become more involved in policy while helping the organization to become more involved in the community. It’s a dream come true.”
Finkelstein sought to open an office in Yonkers as one her first goals. “I couldn’t believe the program didn’t didn’t have one,’’ she said. She worked on several other projects simultaneously such as establishing a partnership with Pace Women’s Justice Center to develop a Family Court legal program and with My Sisters’ Place, a domestic violence group. The office in Yonkers opened in 2000, and six more satellite offices have followed.
“She’s the reason why it has grown,’’ said Tom Gabriel, the Chief Development Officer for LSHV. “It’s her vision, her energy, her drive that has kept it moving forward. We had a 23 percent growth in the number of cases we handled last year. That’s an unprecedented growth rate.”
LSHV primarily protects basic necessities of life, such as shelter, freedom from physical abuse and medical care. Last year, nearly 44 percent of the cases the group handled related to eviction and foreclosure, and another 20 percent were linked to domestic violence.
“These are special cases, people who are one unfortunate circumstance away from being on the street,’’ Finkelstein said. “They’ve endured an amazing set of circumstances and stories.”
Fund-raising has been especially challenging since the recession started in 2009. While the economy is no longer technically classified as being recessive, tell that to Finkelstein and her clients, many of whom are on the precipice of homelessness.
There are 555,000 people eligible for services in the Hudson Valley from LSHV, which assists families who are at or below 200 percent of the poverty level of $48,500 for a family of four. Gabriel, who joined Finkelstein’s team last year, said funds to support LSHV come from government and federal sources. Both have been harder to obtain in recent year.
“The nonprofit world is about 20 percent behind where we were in 2009 in terms of private giving,’’ Gabriel said. “With private fundraising, the key is relationship building and helping people understand what we do. We have to give people a reason to believe in our cause.”
Even after two decades on the job, Finkelstein feels the same energy, passion and commitment to help the less fortunate that she discovered as a young girl growing up in working class Brooklyn.
“I am lucky the job is so varied,’’ Finkelstein said. “It’s my passion. There’s always more work to do, and fundraising can be challenging. The benefit, though, is the difference we make in people’s lives is astonishing. There’s no better feeling than that.”
Click here for more information on the Legal Services of the Hudson Valley.