From NYC to KC St. John’s Law Students Spend Spring Break Working in the Public Interest

Line illustrations of the New York City and Kansas City Skylines.
April 9, 2024

Ask Lana Boiko-Kasyanchuk ‘24 what she did over Spring Break, and she’ll recount time spent in Family Court, Criminal Court, and the Red Hook Community Justice Center assisting attorneys from Brooklyn Defender Services. She volunteered with the public defense office for a week through the Public Interest Center’s annual Spring Break Service Program. 

“I chose to participate in the Spring Break Service Program this year and last year to expand my understanding of various legal issues and witness firsthand how different organizations tirelessly help people,” Boiko-Kasyanchuk says, reflecting on her experience and adding, “It’s easy to underestimate the value of just one week, but the rewards, especially for those with a passion for the field, are immeasurable. It not only broadens horizons, but also deepens empathy and understanding of human struggles.”

With that perspective, Boiko-Kasyanchuk helped to organize this year’s successful Spring Break Service Program. In all, 46 students dedicated over 1,100 pro bono hours working with 18 organizations across New York City, in Kansas City, MO, and elsewhere on a range of issues. They supported civil rights litigation, promoted the legal rights of elder citizens and undocumented residents, advocated for LGBTQ+ youth, and worked with attorneys providing eviction defense to tenants, gaining formative experience in the field.

Spending the week with the New York Legal Assistance Group, Sidney Balaban ‘24 worked in a pro se clinic, helping incarcerated litigants with Section 1983 civil rights claims. “One of the most poignant experiences I had was reading a handwritten complaint from one of the litigants,” he shares. “It was undoubtedly the closest I ever felt to a client compared to any of my previous legal experiences. This encounter provided me with a deeper understanding of the profound responsibilities and empathetic engagement required in the practice of law.”

It's the kind of awareness that the Spring Break Service Program is designed to impart, says Public Interest Center Director Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz. “The Program offers an important experience to students about the challenges faced by people with limited legal support and the work behind the organizations working towards fairness and justice in our legal system.” To share in that singular experience, she joined nine students who traveled to Kansas City for weeklong placements with Legal Aid of Western Missouri and the Federal Defender Office - Western District of Missouri.

“It was great to get to know the students better and understand what drives them to do public interest work,” Ortiz-Ortiz says. “During one of my conversations, I learned from the Federal Defender Office that the primary reason they reached out to St. John’s Law to host students during Spring Break was because their research showed that we have a diverse student body. They value diversity and a range of experiences to better serve their clients.”

Witnessing the service Legal Aid provides to clients in Kansas City made a deep impression on Aylin Castillo ‘24LL.M., who is earning a Master of Laws at St. John’s. In the course of a week, she observed immigration court proceedings, interviewed a victim of domestic violence seeking a green card under the Violence Against Women Act, participated in the Migrant Farmworkers Rights Project, and visited a shelter for people who have suffered domestic violence. “I really benefitted from being exposed to such an inspiring legal team that has a genuine desire to help those who can’t afford legal services and to protect the rights of the most underserved,” says Castillo.

Kipp Garrett ‘25 also had an impactful Spring Break experience. Working in the Federal Defender Office, he built practical skills writing a memo on state criminal procedure law and interviewing clients at a correctional facility. He also gained important insight. “It was great to hear everyone’s backstories,” Garrett says. “From my fellow students, to the public defenders I assisted, to the clients we met, everyone had a unique upbringing that led them to where they are today. It truly opened my eyes to how life can be like the rolling of dice. Therefore, the least we can do is be kind and share our blessings.” 

Castillo joins in the appreciation for the Spring Break Service Program, and extends her gratitude to St. John’s Law alumni who have generously helped to fund it through the years. “It’s heartwarming to know that alumni support the Program because it’s essential that students participate in our public interest community to get a sense of how the real legal world works. There’s still so much to work on, and students represent our future attorneys, judges, public defenders, prosecutors, and more. So, with help of alumni, we can promote social justice and serve the public good.”