Nancy Schmidt

2012 Unsung Hero Nancy Schmidt. Photo: Andrew Kerman

BY PATRICIA CORRIGAN, Special to the Light

Before she became a lawyer, Nancy Schmidt majored in art history in graduate school, but in her career she has turned her attention to larger canvases—those of people’s lives. For almost 15 years, Schmidt, who is not Jewish, has provided free legal services to low-income elderly people of all races and religions through GOALS, a program under the auspices of the American Jewish Congress, St. Louis Region.

At the invitation of building coordinators and program directors, each week Schmidt visits about 25 subsidized apartment buildings, assisted living centers and community centers throughout the metropolitan area, where she meets with people in need of legal advice. The service is free, and in the 33 years since GOALS began, more than 20,000 people have been helped.

Though much of Schmidt’s work involves wills, power of attorney documents, health care powers of attorney and health care directives, one aspect of her job does involve artists—con artists. Some of her clients have bought items advertised on infomercials or through shopping network programs and unfortunately, service after the sale sometimes includes chatty follow-up phone calls, calls made to pressure customers to spend more.

“They call lonely people, elderly people isolated in their apartments, and they talk about all the new items on sale so my clients will buy more,” Schmidt said. “They go after old people—and that’s predatory behavior.”

Also, in the past five years, Schmidt said she has worked with an increasing number of clients who are behind on credit card payments and who end up with higher interest rates and exorbitant late fees. “Some clients will use credit cards, and then something happens—they get sick or they can’t pay—and in just one or two months the charges escalate out of control,” she said.

Over time, the credit card companies turn the bills over to collection agencies, agencies that call up to 20 times a day to harangue customers. “These people are yelling at 92-year-olds, asking why they don’t get a job so they can pay their bills,” Schmidt said. “I attribute this to the greed of the credit card companies. I reassure clients that if all they have is Social Security, the creditors can’t do anything. I also tell them it’s not their fault, that they shouldn’t feel guilty. I do believe that.”

Jay Umansky, president of the American Jewish Congress in St. Louis, knows he has the right person in the job. “Nancy is approachable and remarkably caring, and she does a remarkable job,” Umansky said. “Probably there isn’t a week that goes by that she doesn’t call and we discuss clients’ issues, everything from debt collection practices to legal issues with children to concerns people have with estate planning.”

Umansky added that Schmidt also does periodic presentations on drafting wills,  creditor issues and landlord/tenant issues. “These talks help educate people that these are legal issues, and if GOALS can’t help, Nancy can refer clients to state agencies or elsewhere to help address problems,” he said. “Basically, Nancy regards herself as a problem solver.”

One problem is helping people feel comfortable talking, and another is getting the word out about the program. “Every time I go, there are always people who have never heard about our services, and people are always surprised that’s it’s free, even though a sign says it’s free,” Schmidt said. “This is a great service that the American Jewish Congress provides for people who otherwise don’t have access to a lawyer.”

A native St. Louisan, Schmidt went to work in a local welfare office after college. “I had met someone who worked there, and I was amazed to learn that this agency was helping poor people. While I worked there, I remember thinking that maybe I could do more, help more than one person at a time,” she said. “That’s when I enrolled in law school at Washington University.” After law school, Schmidt worked at Legal Services and then took time off work to care for her daughter. She took the job at GOALS about 15 years ago.

At any one time, Schmidt said she may have 50 open files. The bulk of her work centers on wills and health care directives. “When you are older, you have seen friends die, and you want things settled,” she said. “At first, a lot of people tell me they don’t have a will because they don’t own anything. I point out that even if they have nothing more than a watch or a necklace, the family may fight over it later.”

Schmidt added that people are especially interested in end-of-life care. “Most people do not want to be hooked up to life-sustaining machinery, and they find it a great relief that they can sign a document so that does not happen,” she said. Other clients are pleased to learn about establishing a power of attorney so they don’t have to add relatives on personal bank accounts.

Still others are comforted simply to learn from Schmidt that they do not have to take threatening or harassing phone calls. “I tell them to use the answering machine, screen the calls,” Schmidt said. “I really feel for these clients. Sometimes just talking about the issues helps.”

Schmidt added, “This job is perfect for me. I went to law school to help people, and GOALS has allowed me to do that. For that, I am grateful.”

Nancy Schmidt

FAMILY: Married to Jim White,  who works at Edward Jones as a video engineer; one grown daughter

HOME:   St. Louis County

OCCUPATION:   Attorney with the Gateway Older Adult Legal Services (GOALS) program sponsored by the local chapter of the American Jewish Congress

FAVORITE PASTIME:  Gardening, reading, knitting, theater and getting together with friends