Working to empower the self represented

July 2, 2012
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Deborah Hughes officially landed in Grand Rapids eight years ago and became the executive director of the Legal Assistance Center six months ago. Before she arrived here, though, Hughes crisscrossed the country, both during her formative years and as an adult.

Hughes was born in Wilkes Barre, Pa., but she didn’t stay there long. Bob Hughes, her father, was an aerospace engineer who took his talents and his family to a number of locations on both sides of the country.

“We lived in New Mexico, in California, Virginia Beach and Florida. My dad was in the space program, and we were usually connected to military bases so we moved like a military family. When he was with the space program, we were at the Miramar Naval Air Station in California, which is famous for ‘Top Gun.’ So I grew up moving all of the time,” she said, as did her sister, Sandra.

Hughes also has an interesting adult travel story to tell. She earned her bachelor’s degree in rhetoric and communications at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., and her law degree from the University of Iowa. But she was in Charleston, S.C., working at a law office before her college days when a partner in the firm lit the fire for higher education in her. She said his advice changed her life and put her on a career track in law.

“When I decided I wanted to be a lawyer, I did not have an undergraduate degree. So I started back part time while working full time, and then after two years, I transferred to the University of Virginia,” she said.

Back then, she was working as a legal secretary.

“The person who taught me typing in high school would have fainted dead away if he knew I made a living that involved typewriters,” she said with a laugh.

“I did that for a couple of years and became a self-taught paralegal. At that time, there were no paralegal schools or programs like there are now. Through on-the-job-training, I basically became a paralegal for a trial practice at a time when there were very few women lawyers and nearly no women trial lawyers,” she added.

Unlike most attorneys, Hughes chose law as her career only after the firm allowed her to gain firsthand knowledge of what happens in a courtroom.

“I was intrigued by the courtroom and thought I’d really like to do this.”

Until that point, she wasn’t certain what she would end up doing with her life. But she said just the opposite was true for her husband, Fred Antczak. Unlike his wife, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Grand Valley State University had grown up in just one place — the west side of Grand Rapids — and always knew that he wanted to a teacher.

“So that’s a real contrast,” she said. “But when we had an opportunity to come to West Michigan, I said, ‘Sure, let’s go.’”

They arrived here in 2004, and Hughes joined her husband at GVSU as a consultant and adjunct professor in the School of Criminal Justice and Legal Studies. After she became settled here, she became a volunteer at the Legal Assistance Center, which was created 10 years ago by the Grand Rapids Bar Association, Legal Aid of Western Michigan and Kent County.

“How civic-minded lawyers who partnered with the bar, the county and legal aid came to recognize this gap between paid legal services and free legal services, and imagined providing support for the self-represented, was cutting edge and visionary at the time,” said Hughes.

Hughes has spent much of her adult life advocating for and leading nonprofit organizations. While she practiced family and employment law for 13 years in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, she also chaired the St. Luke’s Hospital Hospice and the Professional Women’s Network of Cedar Rapids. The Girl Scouts are a favorite of hers; she led the Scouts of Mississippi Valley in Iowa and Illinois and the Michigan Shore-to-Shore group.

“I’m in the process of joining Rotary,” she said. “In my career, I’ve usually been connected with many organizations outside of my work, but I’m fairly focused on the Legal Assistance Center for now. But I am involved with the Michigan State Bar’s initiative to assist self-represented parties and expand pro-bono services. And I do a little volunteer work for Dwelling Place.”

Hughes did a year’s worth of volunteering at the Legal Assistance Center and sat on the organization’s board before she moved into the director’s office last January to replace Valerie Ambrose, who retired from the post.

The Fridays she spent helping people navigate through the court system made her appreciate what the center does and drew her to the leadership position when she learned Ambrose was leaving.

“It was really the volunteer experience that caught my attention and passion — seeing the need of people who have no other legal resources and helping them in ways that really did make a difference in their lives, both in terms of the legal outcome of whatever they were working on, but also to see somebody empowered when they previously felt lost and to give them some tools to do what they needed to do,” she said.

“I was doing that volunteer work when the executive director indicated that she was going to retire at the end of the year. In my head, there was a spark that said that was a perfect mix of my legal background, my nonprofit experience and this passion that I’ve developed for the program.”

Deborah and Fred, who met at the University of Virginia, live on the east side of Grand Rapids with Zak, their border collie. They’re celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary this year.

In her spare time, Hughes loves to read.

“I’m a real book lover, the old-fashioned kind — paper. I have an electronic reader, but I really do love books,” she said. She also likes to go to the movies, and she and Fred are big fans of what the city has to offer, like Meijer Gardens, the museums and the restaurants.

“Harking back to my Charleston days, I love being near the water, whether it’s just Reeds Lake here in town or Lake Michigan. I’ve learned I don’t need to be in it or on it, necessarily, but I like being near it.”

As for her immediate future, Hughes doesn’t have any plans to travel. In fact, she is pretty much planted here. Both of her feet are firmly in place on the fifth floor of the county courthouse, which is home base for the assistance center.

“My focus is really on the Legal Assistance Center. I really want to make it my personal and professional goal to make the community aware of the work that is done here and the value to the community of having a self-help center like this one. It’s a rare resource,” she said.

“So it’s up to me, my board members and my staff to work through the community to let people know that we’re here, make them fans of the center and, hopefully, make them supporters.”

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