This month, we’d like to spotlight the work of Ramona Morel, from the Spring 2015 cohort. Ramona is currently the Director of the Consumer Bankruptcy Project at the City Bar Justice Center. She provides legal assistance with filing for bankruptcy relief to low-income New Yorkers faced with mounting debts. In addition, Ramona trains, mentors, and supervises staff. She volunteers to provide direct legal services to these clients. She works in this capacity for the City Bar Justice Center as well as other outside legal service organizations to help foster pro bono assistance to other New Yorkers in various boroughs.

Ramona Morel has the sort of presence that instantly puts everyone around her at ease. She has a soft voice, a friendly demeanor; she wears the serene smile of an older sister, the comforting aura of a friendly cousin. And in many ways, she’s living her dream.

“Since I was five or six, I wanted to be a lawyer, and I never really changed,” she says. Even at that age, Ramona already knew what college she wanted to go to, what law school she planned to attend. “Public interest is something that I’ve always been interested in and wanted to do.”

Her interest in law crystallized after an incident in her early childhood, when — as a little girl only five or six years old — she was held at knifepoint by a mugger who set out to rob her mother. Ramona’s mother surrendered her money and jewelry to the young man, and fortunately, Ramona escaped her assailant’s grip uninjured. But then, of course, they had to report the robbery to the police.

“My mother, who was an immigrant, couldn’t speak English enough to report him. So as this young child, I had to call 911 to give a description,” she recalls. “And then I also felt this sense of, ‘What’s going to happen to him now? He should go to jail, some justice should prevail, and he should be prosecuted.’”

Thus, from that point on, Ramona’s chief desire was actually to become a prosecutor. She dreamt of assisting the law in meting out justice, of putting criminals behind bars. Later in life, however, she would learn that the young man who mugged her mother had actually lived in her building — he was, in fact, the son of one of her mother’s friends, and a drug addict who had robbed Ramona’s mother because he was desperate for money to feed his habit.

That was the point, Ramona says, that she began thinking of crime and justice in a different light.

“I started to think that there has to be a balance between the law to bring about justice for those who have been victims and helping the community. Someone like that young man shouldn’t have gone to jail. He needed help so that he wouldn’t commit that crime again,” she says.

Eventually, she fulfilled her dreams of attending law school — which, coincidentally, prompted the beginning of her career at the City Bar Justice Center.

“Taking the bar, studying for the bar, and paying for those prep classes [was] expensive, so a part-time job opened up here, and it just worked out that I applied and got in,” the attorney explains. “And I love the mission of the organization so much that I’ve been here for over 12 years.”

As the Director of the Consumer Bankruptcy Project, Ramona’s gotten a first-hand look at the problems, both social and psychological, that come with financial struggle.

“One of the things that people don’t understand about bankruptcy is that the clients who come to us are embarrassed about it,” she says. But there isn’t any reason that they should be — most people who file for bankruptcy through her project have gone through truly unexpected circumstances that have led them to be burdened with consumer debt.

“And so therefore they file for bankruptcy for a variety of reasons. It could be to stop, maybe, a garnishment. A creditor. It could be psychological, a fresh start. [Filing for] bankruptcy will stop these creditors from contacting them every single day,” she says. One of the most important duties that the City Bar Justice Center performs is the empowerment of its clients — every day, Ramona and the attorneys under her leadership help struggling New Yorkers understand that they have not failed, that bankruptcy is a legal right, that there is no shame in it.

“It’s like they’ve been stuck in this box with all these financial problems and a bunch of other things that are going on,” she says. “Bankruptcy will help them break free. Using my legal skills to provide access to justice to those who cannot afford an attorney is a way to empower poor consumers.”

Ramona’s time in the Leadership Fellows program helped her shape her skills as a leader within her organization.

“I think the Leadership [Fellows] program was so amazing in that it really did fortify my love for this organization,” she says. “I have to say that my leadership skills increased in a way that I’m able to run this project the way that I do.” As she bonded with her peers in the cohort of Spring 2015, she was able to learn about other nonprofit organizations in New York — and listening to the mission statements and core values in other organizations helped her realize that the City Bar Justice Center’s core values are the same as her own.

“I liked all of the sessions. I loved the communications classes that we had. I thought that it was so impactful and so important, to be able to talk about your initiative and get people to understand why it’s so important,” Ramona says of her time with the Trust Fellows. “But I will say that my favorite, favorite thing was getting to know each and every one of the fellows. I was just taken aback by how amazing the other people in the fellowship were. The different things they did in their organizations, whether it was operations manager or someone in the HR department or my teammate who was also an attorney at one of the legal services organizations — it is amazing how everyone from so many different backgrounds keeps New York moving. And I was just in awe with each and every one of them.

“There wasn’t [a] sense of negativity,” she recalls fondly. “It was just, here’s what we can do, someone would bring up an issue and we’d all have some kind of solution or some way of talking about it or brainstorming or bouncing ideas off each other, and [there] was a sense of empowerment.”

When asked to provide advice for future leaders, Ramona laughs a little bit, but easily provides pointed, solid advice. The first thing, she says, is to stay true to yourself, and to your core values.

“Stay true to yourself, and don’t be afraid to stay true to yourself,” she cautions.

The second thing, she says, is to respect everyone, and to always be a mentor. “I used to work with my predecessor from the project, and he said, ‘You never know who’s who.’ You never know who’s going to be who in the future. So respect everyone, but also provide that mentorship to somebody who needs it,” says Ramona. “You just never know. That person could be the next big star, the next big president. You want to fortify those future leaders, even if it’s at the risk of your own job. When we’re thinking about leadership, we need to think not only about ourselves, but what kind of leaders we want in the future and in the world.”

“What you bring to the table,” she says, “teach it to the next set of leaders.”