There are plenty of veterans needing help with their denied VA benefits claims and a good supply of law student volunteers to help them. But what is in short supply at the Stetson Veterans Law Institute and Advocacy Clinic is space.
A few years ago, the institute opened in a small home across the street from the Gulfport campus with three law students helping on cases. Now, there are 15 law students in the same cramped quarters.
The good news is the institute and clinic are moving to a new space that includes more than just additional room.
“It’s a wellness space for everyone that we designed but specifically targets conditions that veterans might suffer from in a higher quantity, PTS (Post Traumatic Stress), TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) or things like hearing issues,” said Stacey-Rae Simcox, law professor, veteran and director of the institute.
The first thing Simcox asked architect Tony Huggins to address was the fluorescent lighting because many students complained the overhead lights in their current space caused headaches.
The new, work environment has four different levels of indirect, LED lighting with dimmers for control. And there’s plenty of natural light.
“You’ll be able to see daylight and the rhythm of what is happening outside from this space,” Huggins said, pointing to the eight inch glass block added to the back wall of the large room that will house the law students.
The new space on the Gulfport campus is a former facilities building. Retrofitting the square shell of a building meant the interiors needed to be warmed-up, soundproofed and secured for the program’s veteran clients.
“We’re talking about confidential information so we wanted to make sure we’re respecting people’s privacy,” Simcox said. “And the disability most veterans have is hearing. So we needed it to be a space where it would be quiet enough they’d be able to hear.”
Huggins knocked on the double pane glass windows and foam-filled metal door frames, demonstrating some of the sound-deadening features of the interview rooms.
All the doors have sound seals, there’s carpeting and special thick flooring. The air conditioning has Z-shaped vent connections so you can’t hear conversations from adjacent rooms and even the electrical outlets are offset.
“Right now, we have to go to the library to do conferences, that’s a lot of walking back and forth. Having everything in one building will be so much more convenient,” said Kelley Thompson, a third-year law student who is eager to use the private interview rooms with her clients.
There are also subtle design features like curved ceiling panels, birch wood cabinets and stone wall accents to enhance natural elements.
Huggins also designs wellness spaces for large hospitals. He called the repeated wall patterns “way finders” because they help clients connect spaces.
Simcox said the natural stone makes students and veterans feel welcome. The open design also has no hidden corners or closed off spaces which she said will help with people who have anxiety issues.
And most importantly the new space means the clinic can grow again.
“Volunteers, that’s the important part. I think we have more volunteers that would come in – it’s just we’re all sitting on top of each other. So this is not only going to help us teach more how to better lawyers and to help those who are underserved but to reach more clients, more veterans who need help.”
The new Veterans Law Institute and Advocacy Clinic will be dedicated Monday, October 29, at a 9 a.m. ceremony. The student volunteers and staff plan to move in later in the week.