WVU Law's VISTAs are helping communities

WVU Law's VISTAs are helping communities

Attorneys and students in the WVU's Land Use and Sustainable Development (LUSD) Law Clinic work many hours of pro bono service to help the state’s communities develop and grow strategically — but they aren’t doing it alone.

Allison Eckman and Rob Donaldson are Americorps Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) who have committed a year of service helping the LUSD Law Clinic and West Virginia communities create and implement comprehensive plans.

The goal of an Americorps VISTA is to support work that alleviates poverty and advances communities. The LUSD VISTAs meet that goal by working with the public to improve shareholder engagement and facilitate public meetings, workshops and trainings that surround the comprehensive planning process.

Rob Donaldson began working with the LUSD Clinic in November 2016 on a comprehensive plan for McDowell County. He is based at the WVU Beckley Campus and frequents meetings in the communities of War, Gary, Welch, Northfolk, Iaeger, and Keystone.

During the comprehensive planning process, a community takes a proactive approach to development by addressing long-term strategies relating to issues like land use, historic preservation, recreation, infrastructure, transportation and economic advancement.

“The good thing about comprehensive plans is they give a voice back to these communities so they can decide what they want to look like in the future,” said Donaldson. “This process has given the community a chance to plan for what they want to see McDowell County become in the next 5-10 years.”

Donaldson is no stranger to the LUSD Law Clinic’s work with communities like those in McDowell County because he was a member of the clinic as a WVU Law student.

Being a student attorney in the Clinic helped Donaldson land a job in the oil and gas industry after he graduated in May 2016 with an Energy and Sustainable Development Law concentration, but he decided to forego that position to pursue public interest work.

“It’s a little scary becoming an Americorp VISTA after law school because you are accepting a very modest salary, and you have student loans to think about,” he said. “But it’s rewarding to be in an organization that allows me to take a direct role in exacting change. It’s amazing to have the chance to do something so positive before I have really even begun my legal career.”

Donaldson is from Ashburn, Virginia. He graduated from George Mason University with a bachelor’s degree in English with a concentration in cultural studies before attending WVU Law.

Allison Eckman began her year of service in August 2016. She is supporting the Clinic’s work to develop comprehensive plans in the Upper Kanawha Valley for the communities of Montgomery, Smithers, and Gauley Bridge.

"Having a comprehensive plan will help communities in the Upper Kanawha Valley define a vision," Eckman said. "The plan will outline what action steps need taken to achieve that vision. There are so many opportunities and ideas in the Upper Kanawha Valley. There’s a lot of passion, and this will help Gauley Bridge, Smithers, and Montgomery create a path forward."

Eckman is based in Morgantown, but she travels with the LUSD Clinic to meet with municipalities as the planning process progresses. She has also helped the Clinic establish planning commissions within some local governments that must be in place before a comprehensive plan can be developed.

Eckman is from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in English from West Virginia University in May 2016.

“This position has given me a passion for community development, and it’s made me realize there’s a lot to be said for grassroots efforts,” she said. “A comprehensive plan is the foundation for planning in a community, and the fact that the LUSD Clinic can make that happen for so many communities who would have otherwise not been able to afford those services is really amazing to see.”

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