Powell Fellow Mario Salas '14 to Help Families Navigate Services for Youth with Disabilities
After graduating from the University of Virginia with a psychology degree in 2003, Mario Salas found a fulfilling job in Charlottesville working one-on-one with children as a teacher at the Virginia Institute of Autism. But he soon realized how he might make an impact in a new way — helping children with disabilities transition from school to adulthood as their legal advocate.
"That gap in between school and life after school is really what motivated me to come to law school — seeing how tough it is for parents to navigate that divide," said Salas, who will graduate from UVA Law in May. "It's an area that's really easily kind of brushed aside. So much of the planning is for right now, and what sort of crisis do we need to figure out right now."
Salas will see his dream come to fruition as the 13th recipient of the Law School's Powell Fellowship, which offers a $40,000 salary for two years to a graduate working in the public interest. The fellowship will fund a position at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville, where Salas has designed a plan to help families of children with disabilities realize their educational goals, as well as plan for life after school.
"Mario started donating his time to legal aid clients his first month in law school, and he never stopped giving," LAJC Executive Director Mary Bauer said. "With his background as an educator, Mario is uniquely suited to helping young people with disabilities get what they need to thrive as adults. We are thrilled to host his fellowship."
Many of Virginia's special-education services for children and young adults in need end at age 22, so it's important to plan for their next steps in life, Salas said.
"My project is to represent parents in special-ed planning meetings, to advocate for better special-ed services that are focused more tightly on that transition from school to after school, whatever that looks like based on the student's needs and interests and strengths," he said.
Many of the parents of children with autism Salas encountered at the Virginia Institute of Autism faced challenges outside of parenting, such as a lack of income or limited English proficiency.
"Parents are really in a tough spot just generally when it comes to advocating for their kids' special education programs," he said. "It sparked a passion for me to fight for them."
Salas has volunteered hundreds of hours with the Legal Aid Justice Center since starting law school, including with the JustChildren Program. He also took the Child Advocacy Clinic last year, then stayed in the clinic for an additional semester through an independent project under Professor Andrew Block in the fall.
"I got a lot of new experience working directly in the field I want to work on — being in special-ed planning meetings, working on school discipline issues when it involves kids in special ed," he said. "It really allowed me to start what I hope to do next year early."
In his first summer job after starting law school, Salas worked at Legal Aid as an intern for the Access to Justice Partnership, a UVA Law program that pairs students with local attorneys to provide legal services to low-income local residents.
"We started this online training database for new student volunteers and attorney volunteers," he said, so they could learn to do tasks like basic unemployment insurance advocacy. Last summer he worked in the Public Benefits Unit of Community Legal Services in Philadelphia.
"The need is vast there," he said, due to the large number of people receiving public benefits in the city. Often he helped people who lost benefits, such as health coverage from Medicaid, through bureaucratic errors, or who needed help retaining benefits with continuing eligibility requirements.
In addition to these roles, Salas is an executive board member of the student-run Public Interest Law Association, which raises funds for students working in public service over the summer, and has also volunteered while in Pennsylvania with Cover the Commonwealth, an advocacy group dedicated to expanding Medicaid coverage in the state.
Salas is a participant in UVA Law's Program in Law and Public Service, which offers special training for public interest advocacy, funding for summer jobs and faculty mentoring.
"Mario's future legal aid clients will benefit greatly from his patience, diligence and excellent communication skills," Balnave said. "He shows great promise as an effective lawyer for low-income families experiencing stressful circumstances."
Salas praised the Law School's Public Service Center for its role in preparing him for fellowship applications.
"I knew the fellowship route was the path I wanted to take," he said. "I can't say enough good things about how they helped me prepare."
In the long term, Salas said he wanted to continue to help children with disabilities and their families or other low-income clients in need.
"The need for encouraging schools to independently plan for better transition services for these kids is pretty great, especially in the rural counties," he said. "I would love to stay as close to working with clients as I possibly can. I really like being hands-on, working with people, building relationships."