CASS LAKE -- Things are on the upswing for Anishinabe Legal Services, the civil legal aid organization serving low-income residents of Leech Lake, Red Lake and White Earth Nations.

The organization, which has a mission to ensure equal access to high-quality legal assistance for historically under-served people and protect tribal sovereignty, was recently awarded a number of sizable grants, a couple of which came as a surprise. Their new building, which has been in the works since August, is also nearing completion.

The services ALS provides are needed now more than ever, Executive Director Cody Nelson said, as unexpected COVID-19 related civil legal issues have been stacking up.

Nelson said one of the grants received is specifically earmarked to help those with COVID-19 related legal needs. He said these needs have taken the form of custody disputes, housing law, elder custodial rights, and help navigating stimulus checks and unemployment aid.

Welcome surprises

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Over the last few months, ALS received three grants of note.

The most recent was one for $75,000 from the Otto Bremer Trust. Nelson said some of this funding will go toward the building project and the rest will go toward general operations.

Before that came two welcome surprises.

One day in November, Nelson said the organization received notice of a grant award for $25,000 from the Bentson Foundation out of Wayzata, Minn.

ALS hadn't even applied for the grant, and it was so out of the blue, Nelson checked to make sure there wasn’t some sort of mix-up.

The foundation explained that they had learned of their mission by chance, and thought ALS was a worthy cause. The funds will be used to support services for clients related to COVID-19 pandemic.

From the Friends of Legal Services Corporation came a surprise $50,000 to be used for video teleconference equipment, improvement of the Red Lake satellite office, and the new building project. Nelson said the audio-visual equipment will be vital in helping connect with clients during COVID-19, as many court proceedings have been taking place over Zoom.

“With those funding sources, we’re able to, in January, hire a new administrative support position,” Nelson said. “It’ll help us just be even more responsive as client needs and case numbers go up as the epidemic creates new legal needs for folks. The demand is definitely rising throughout 2020 and we expect it to grow even further in 2021.”

Ready to help

Nelson said the coronavirus situation has only exacerbated clients’ civil legal needs. Particularly noticeable has been higher needs in family law -- parents not adhering to custody agreements during pandemic and tenant law, which is expected to rise when the eviction moratorium is lifted.

“We think once the moratorium ends then there’s just going to be a flood of need for civil legal services there,” Nelson said.

“It’s presented itself in a number of ways,” he said of the pandemic. “I could just go on and on about the different ways we see it.”

Nelson wanted to remind people that while their doors are only open via appointment, they are still very much there and ready to help people with their legal needs.

Closer to a new home

The saga began back in August when ALS demolished their deteriorating building after more than 45 years there. Since then, the foundation was poured, the prefabricated building was delivered in sections and assembled, HVAC was installed, and painting is underway this week.

Nelson said the organization is optimistic that operations can begin in the new building soon after the new year.

A project for a new building has been ongoing since nearly 2012. The board of directors decided in 2018 to undergo official strategic planning and a fundraising plan was formed. The total project cost is right around $500,000, Nelson said.

“There were some delays along the way, but it’s an actual building now,” Nelson said. “It’s been a labor of love for sure.”

Originally the staff was hopeful the project would be completed by October, but the anticipated move-in date is now Jan. 11.

ALS is currently open for services, clients are just asked to call to set up a time to speak with staff. Until the new building is fully open, employees are still working out of their temporary office at Leech Lake Financial Services at 113 Spruce Ave. in Cass Lake.