Wright Makes Might

Valerie Wright lends her strength to those in need

Published in 2009 New England Rising Stars — November 2009

Valerie Wright still remembers what the woman in the Yale career center told her when she heard that the biology major wanted to find a nonprofit job in public health: “She said: ‘Good luck. That’s like pulling teeth from a hen,’” recalls Wright. “Then she pointed me to a couple of binders in the corner.”

In the binders, Wright—then a volunteer with the AIDS Project New Haven—found an ad for a health advocacy fellow position at the Medicare Beneficiaries Defense Fund (now called the Medicare Rights Center). She took the job and spent the next two years staffing a hotline for Medicare beneficiaries in New York state. (She also helped to represent those whose claims had been denied.)

Before that, she’d never thought about being a lawyer. In fact, the executive director and associate director she worked for were some of the first lawyers she’d ever met. But Wright found that she enjoyed representing people in front of administrative law judges, which is how Medicare claims are resolved.

She represented one woman who’d had a mastectomy and was having trouble getting Medicare to cover breast reconstruction surgery. “She was educating me about her condition and this procedure, and we managed to get it covered for her,” Wright says. “It was my first exposure to direct services and really helping people in a legal sense—and I liked it.”

After attending New York University for law school, Wright joined the litigation department at Verrill Dana in Portland, Maine, in 2001 and made partner in 2007.

A board member of the AIDS Lodging House, she is also heavily involved in the firm’s pro bono work. She works with the Domestic Violence Pro Bono Panel to assist people who are seeking Orders for Protection. Alongside fellow Verrill attorney Elizabeth Frankel, Wright helped file an emergency amicus brief in the case of “Ms. T,” a pregnant woman from Cameroon who was arrested on charges of having false immigration documents and then sentenced to prison by a judge who learned she was HIV positive; he felt her baby would benefit from better health care if she were required to give birth in prison. Wright, Frankel and Ms. T’s attorneys convinced the judge otherwise, and Ms. T was sentenced to time served.

“This ruling makes me very happy for Ms. T, because I know that it has a tremendous effect on her life,” says Wright. “But I’m also reminded that for every client like her who finds the pro bono help that she needs, there are many people out there who need legal help and aren’t getting it.”

Wright also works with the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project to represent people seeking asylum in the U.S. Just recently, she won asylum for a man from Rwanda, who now hopes to bring his family here.

Says Wright: “The asylum clients I’ve had came from different places and had different stories, but they all showed up in this country and basically got off a bus and had no idea where they were going to go. They didn’t have any money, didn’t know anybody, didn’t speak the language. I can’t even imagine what that’s like and how you cope.”

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