Sally Fisher Curran named 2017 Kathy Award Winner

Sally Fisher Curran, center left, with the executive leadership of the Gifford and Allyn Family foundations on November 1.

Sally Fisher Curran was delightfully surprised to receive the Kathy Goldfarb-Findling Award on November 1, 2017 at the Marriott Hotel Downtown Syracuse, and even more astonished when her parents appeared onstage to offer congratulations. The award, jointly bestowed by the Gifford Foundation and the Allyn Family Foundation, honors local nonprofit professionals that embody a collaborative and dynamic approach to leadership. Honorees are unaware of their recognition prior to the event; the Allyn and Gifford Foundations clandestinely contact the recipient’s family and friends ahead of time. “It makes for a wonderful ceremony,” smiles Meg O’Connell, Executive Director of the Allyn Family Foundation.

The Kathy Goldfarb-Findling Award, affectionately known as “the Kathy”, has celebrated nonprofit leaders in Syracuse since 2012. The award is named for the late Executive Director of the Gifford Foundation; Kathy Goldfarb-Findling also served as the Allyn Family Foundation’s Director of Strategic Services. The Kathy Award looks beyond degrees and certifications to highlight community leaders that listen carefully, think creatively, and leverage grassroots partnerships from the ground up.

When asked about this year’s recipient Sally Curran, O’Connell remarked: “Sally is a transformational leader. Her ability to build collaborations and connect people has lead to innovative new programs as well as fundamental systems change.”

Curran serves as the Executive Director of the Volunteer Lawyers Project of Onondaga County, Inc. (OnVLP). She moved to Syracuse with her wife in 2012, and promptly accepted a position at the Onondaga County Bar Association. Under Sally’s leadership, OnVLP spun off of the Bar Association in 2013. As an independent 501(c)3, the Volunteer Lawyers Project was able to focus exclusively on its mission of providing equal access to justice for low-income individuals in Syracuse.

OnVLP has grown tremendously since its inception, currently boasting 9 staff members as well as a panel of 500 volunteer attorneys. The organization is also intimately connected with various area law schools, with law students from SU and Cornell volunteering their time and burgeoning expertise. OnVLP closed 3185 cases in 2016 on a range of topics, including domestic violence, divorce, homelessness, elder care and disability, immigration, veteran and LGBTQ issues.

While there are a few organizations that offer free legal services in Syracuse, OnVLP remains the only nonprofit that addresses the “continuum of legal aid services” ranging from pro bono court representation to consultation.

In Curran’s eyes, the greatest legal needs often lie outside of service provision: an OnVLP Civil Needs Legal Survey revealed community-wide unawareness about free legal aid services. Of the 425 Onondaga County residents surveyed, 58% did not know of any place that gives free legal assistance in Syracuse - and 53% of surveyed individuals reported two or more current legal problems.

This troubling context affirms Curran’s belief in delivering legal services at the community level. OnVLP hosts free legal clinics every month at 5 courts and 13 different community-based organizations throughout Syracuse, including Westcott Community Center and the East Syracuse Library. Clinic hours are deliberately varied to accommodate clients’ work schedules, school and childcare. Community-based legal aid also helps ameliorate feelings of intimidation: “It can be really daunting to break up your day and travel downtown to get help,” notes Curran.

OnVLP also provide legal screenings for aspiring business owners and entrepreneurs through a partnership with Centerstate CEO and their UpStart initiative. “The idea is to incorporate legal aid right into existing organizations,” explains Curran.

OnVLP plans to expand its immigration programming in the coming year through a partnership with Americorps. Curran also hopes to delve more deeply into homelessness and eviction support services. Her orientation towards positive growth bodes well for the organization’s future; OnVLP will participate in the Gifford Foundation’s 2018 ADVANS program in order to flesh out its long term capacity strategies. Curran welcomes the opportunity to ‘nerd out’ over big-picture questions to ensure OnVLP’s continued success.

In addition to serving as the Executive Director, Curran is involved with OnVLP’s homelessness advocacy program and its LBGT client services. As an adjunct professor at Cornell Law School, she oversees small cohorts of law students with specific LBGT client caseloads. She often offers community trainings on LGBT issues.

Curran credits her board and her colleagues for encouraging her to pursue various opportunities within and outside of OnVLP. “[The board] thinks expansively about our work, and they’re very collaborative,” says Curran. “We’re so lucky to have so many supportive people on board.”

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