During the past few years, the volunteer staff program at Maricopa County Justice Courts had slowed to being nearly non-existent.
But at the beginning of this year, a new coordinator, a long-time Valley youth workforce development agency and an ideal volunteer combined to breathe new life into the program that provides young people with work experience and a front-row seat to the inner workings of the legal system.
The experience that volunteer Julianna Martinez, 19, has had so far as a court clerk at Highland Justice Court has not only provided her with great references and experience, but also altered the course of her life.
“I was at ASU majoring in air traffic management to be an air traffic controller, but I really didn’t like it,” Martinez says. “Because of my work experience at Highland Justice Court, I changed my major to criminology. I got to meet a lot of people there, including the judge. I love it.”
Martinez didn’t just wander into the court one day and ask for a job.
Her path to a legal career actually started three years ago while she was a sophomore in high school. She spotted a flier from Arizona Call- a-teen Youth Resources, Inc. (ACYR) and called the phone number. The group is one of about 10 such organizations in the Valley that focus on providing youth workforce development services.
“They said they would help me further my education with money or whatever I needed. So I got really excited,” she says.
Martinez’s initial job opportunity was with Golden Gate Community Center in the summer of 2010, where she mostly played with kids. It was just a few months, and she figured she would move on to something else when she was done. However, she was told by the ACYR staff that she could stay with the organization, which she says got her hooked.
“I really loved it, and plus I didn’t realize I could stay enrolled at ACYR. I felt like I needed to give back,” she says.
What Martinez hadn’t realized at the time is that ACYR is no one-trick pony. The organization wanted to make sure she had a job that could pay her and provide future career opportunities. She says she has received assistance with buying clothes, gas, paying for her education in addition to opportunities to build up her resume. “Actually, they give you a lot of stuff,” she says.
The organization, which was founded in the 1970s, started as an all- volunteer effort to help teens find summer jobs. Today, ACYR’s 55 employees are “laser-focused” on helping young people contribute to society through working, says Executive Director Pam Smith. “We develop our greatest natural resource — youth,” she says.
The organization attempts to achieve its workforce development goals through three divisions. The Center of Excellence is ACYR’s charter high school that has served grades 9-12 for 17 years. The Center for Educational Options helps 16-24 year-olds prepare to obtain a GED. The third — which Martinez is a part of — is the Center for Workforce Development. The programs housed in the Center for Workforce Development are funded through the city of Phoenix, Maricopa County and the U.S. Department of Labor to the tune of $1.7 million annually.
This year, ACYR received an additional $500,000 grant from Wal-Mart specifically to provide young people with summer job opportunities that combine work with learning, Smith says. Through that grant, the organization, which helps about 1,850 youths annually, was able to offer an additional 329 young people, including Martinez, work opportunities.
This summer, Martinez got that additional opportunity through the volunteer program with Highland Justice Court. And although she is making the most of it, when she first started with ACYR, Martinez, like many other youths who come through the organization’s door, was at a crossroads.
“She came to us with some problems and issues, and at her stage of development she could have taken multiple paths,” Smith says. “She decided she wanted to go toward the path of higher education. She worked and is working very diligently and is totally committed to taking all the steps necessary to create a quality life for herself, her family and her community.”
In fact, Martinez is flourishing in her volunteer role. In an unusual move, the court manager actually recommended that she apply for an open paid position.
Whitney Jennings, volunteer program coordinator for Maricopa County Justice Courts, says, “The court manager wouldn’t necessarily look at a volunteer and say, ‘Oh, they’d be great to bring on.’ So when the court manager called me and said he was recommending Julianna to apply for a job, I thought it was a great idea to have someone come on who already knows the inner workings of the court and has been through it all.”
Jennings says the typical volunteer for the program is a college-aged student who is looking to go into the legal field anyway, but typically not as a court staffer. High school students, such as Martinez was, are usually just curious as to how it all works, and Jennings is happy to provide them with the opportunity to visit the inside of a court — on their own terms.
“High school students want the opportunity to get inside of a courtroom because they’ve never seen anything like that,” Jennings says. “Also, they get to learn what is going on, in case they ever have to go (to court). I hope they never have to go without wanting to go…but most people never get that opportunity.”
As long as they are 18, volunteers like Martinez can do lots of jobs at the court. Her tasks as a clerk involve processing case files and new civil filings, but volunteers can even act as a bailiff. Jennings says it largely depends on what the court managers and justice of the peace would like them to do.
And convincing court managers and JPs at the county’s 25 justice courts that using volunteer staffers is a good idea isn’t always easy.
That’s another reason why volunteers like Martinez, who learns fast and decided early on to immerse herself in the environment, are important to the continued growth and success of the program.
“She was an ideal candidate to have because this particular portion of the volunteer program was new to the court,” Jennings says. “She is interested in actually being in the court and learning. Sometimes when you get volunteers in front of a court manager, they’re not so sure about them and what their motives are, so she was a great candidate to start it out.”
Martinez took to the position quickly and requested to stay with the court through the school year. That convinced Jennings to allow Martinez to be trained on the court’s complex computer system so she could help customers filing a case, making sure they had all the right forms.
“We got her into the training so she was able to really get the feel of it all,” Jennings says. “She sat in the courtroom with the judge to see how he handles things. She was all over the place and wonderful to work with.”
Although the court manager recommended that she apply for a permanent clerking job with the court, Martinez, who just started her second year at Arizona State University, is sticking with school. But that isn’t keeping her totally away from the court.
Initially, she was paid for her volunteer time at the court during the summer through the Wal-Mart grant. In deciding to stay on as a volunteer while attending school, she knew it would be unpaid and not an official work experience through ACYR. The dedication to the program she and other volunteers have helped it gain momentum.
“The volunteer staff program has never really picked up how it has now,” Jennings says. “In the last two-to-three months, I have about 20 volunteers now.”
Martinez’s overall experience with ACYR also convinced her to give back to the group that has given her so much. She serves as chair of the organization’s leadership council. “I tell people to get involved with ACYR,” she says. “If you are involved, they help you more. I also tell people to join my council, because I would be really happy.”
Understandably, she is a big cheerleader for ACYR.
“I actually tell everybody to join ACYR because it’s an amazing place.
A lot of people don’t know that there are places out there to help you with everything you are going through,” she says. “If I told my ACYR career adviser that I am in criminology and I wanted a volunteer experience, they would go running to a place to get me that. They are there for us.”
It seems that everyone sees a bright future for Martinez. “She is a star,” says Smith, ACYR executive director. “Her success is indicative of young people who fully embrace the opportunities that we can provide for them.”
Martinez, who strives to be a role model for others, says, “I want to be a Supreme Court judge. I want to be someone where people look up and say, ‘Oh this lady is Hispanic, and she came from nothing all the way to the top.’ If I do get there, I know that I will be grateful to everybody who helped me, and like 75 percent of the credit will go to ACYR. The other 25 percent is my family.”