One from the Heart
Tiffany and Ryan Mikkelson are a "power couple". Both attorneys and both at the helm and the heart of Lowcountry Legal Aid, they are making a difference at lightening speed. Leading almost impossible schedules, they served up one of the most unusual interviews I have ever done. They are deeply involved with their duties at the non-profit agency, yet manage to enjoy parenthood of their three beautiful small children, including a set of 19-month-old twins. It was no surprise that our meeting turned into a multi-tasking endeavor as we sat at the Sandbox Children's Discovery Museum watching the children play!
Pink: Ryan, you are the Executive Director of Lowcountry Legal Aid. What does this agency do and how did you get involved?
Ryan: Lowcountry Legal Aid is a non-profit agency that engages community volunteers and retired attorneys in providing free advice, education and legal representation to low-income citizens in Beaufort, Jasper and Hampton Counties. I got involved as a volunteer. I was a lawyer with a large firm in Mississippi working on an overload of Hurricane Katrina insurance litigation cases. I grew up on Hilton Head, and Tiffany and I decided to move back. Shortly after, I got really ill, and it changed my life. I felt a real need to give back and so I started volunteering at LCLA. Then I was asked to be Interim Executive Director. The organization, which is not funded by the government in anyway, was in financial trouble. Several grants that LCLA relied on were cut in half, funding had become a real problem and the possibility of closing the doors was becoming all too real.
Since then, we have turned things around. With the help of several new, enthusiastic board members, many retired volunteer attorneys and the continued involvement from the original founder, Keri Olivetti, things are really looking up. We have been awarded some new grant monies and we continue to get thousands of calls and help more and more people each year!
Pink: I know you two met in law school. Did you ever think you would be in this sort of a setting -I mean a not-for-profit that is?
Ryan: No, I certainly did not. My dad is a doctor and does a lot of work for those in need, but I always wanted to have a big money job and give to causes. I guess I saw myself as a philanthropist, not a hands on guy.
Tiffany: I was an associate at a huge insurance law firm with100-plus lawyers. My day consisted of pumping out billable hours (Tiffany was the top associate at the firm). This was the career I worked towards all during law school. Unfortunately, after I had our son, my boss told me that I could not involve myself with "children events" during work. He said that would make the firm look bad, and that I needed to hire a nanny to be my son's mother. I left that very day. I love to practice the law, but I love my family more!
Pink: Speaking of the practice of law, what types of cases do you handle at LCLA?
Ryan: Somehow LCLA has been confused with not-for-profit groups that practice immigration law. We do not do that, nor do we handle criminal cases. We help in child support cases, custody cases, landlord tenant disputes and many other types of cases. We also help do set-ups for new 501(3)C not-for-profit groups as a public service. This year, we also started a program, where we go out and provide free wills for public servants like firefighters and police officers.
Tiffany: I use my legal skills to help those in desperate need. I love to practice law and I am not afraid of hard work. It is a very high volume practice, but it is also very personal to me. I never take less than the "whole person" approach. Often our clients are distraught, scared and really don't know where to turn for help. My job reaches beyond just being an attorney, I also comfort, counsel, educate and offer a lot of hugs. To do less would be a disservice to the client.
Pink: Tiffany, you are the only practicing attorney on staff at LCLA, but there are attorney volunteers also. Do you get to experience many success stories?
Tiffany: Yes, that's what keeps Ryan and I working so hard for the cause. We get to help so many people that would otherwise never be able to afford an attorney.We not only help people, we also get to see the growth of our clients. We get to know them and, often times, their families too. We see them go from almost feeling helpless, sometimes completely broken down, to feeling confident about themselves. There are many, many happy outcomes. Justice is for all and that is the premise at LCLA.
Pink: I know you both feel strongly and deeply toward each other and your commitment to help those in desperate need. What other passions do you share?
Ryan and Tiffany: We have three beautiful children and honestly, they are our real passion. Our goal with them is to show them love. We want to be sure they feel wanted, valued and loved. Yes, we share a passion for the work, but really family love is always goal one.
Tiffany and Ryan have three of the cutest children you have ever seen. They are also two of the most dedicated people I have ever met. They not only share love, they share a labor of love through an unparalleled devotion to the people they serve. What a wonderful couple, it was a privilege to meet them.