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Free Legal Services for Bay Ridge Heroes

Veterans 60+ of NYC

Jess Penkoff, VOLS

Bay Ridge Center launched Bay Ridge Heroes on Veterans Day 2020 to honor our nation’s veterans and their families with the best resources, services, and connections for veterans aged 60+ in NYC. Heroes partners with the Veterans Initiative at Volunteers of Legal Service in order to help make legal services more widely available to the members of our community. Staff Attorney Jess Penkoff has worked personally with Heroes who are members of Bay Ridge Center.


Through the Veterans Initiative, VOLS assists senior veterans with end-of-life planning to ensure that their legal, financial, and health-care related decisions are protected during their lifetime and after they pass away. In this interview, Jess discusses providing legal help to veterans and other members of the Bay Ridge community.


Why is it important to prioritize legal assistance for older veterans? In my experience, older veterans tend to be less connected to resources offered to the general public. By targeting this specific population, we can be really intentional about how we engage this particular group. Especially during the pandemic, we are concerned with how isolated some people are and we want to make sure that everyone has access to the free legal services that are available to them. In addition, they are veterans who have served our country and should be able to get these resources when they need them.

What do you see as some of the biggest barriers for veterans accessing legal resources?


Right now, the biggest barrier is the pandemic. Before the pandemic​, the way we worked with clients was in person at senior centers and at the VA​, and right now we are not able to do that. Because a lot of our clients are low income ​and have limited financial resources, they have limited access to the technological resources necessary to connect with us, especially now. Programs like the Bay Ridge Center, that have online programs and virtual services, have been really helpful during the pandemic. Community partnerships were always important and are even more important now in order to get us connected with those who need our services.

How can organizations like Bay Ridge Center most effectively collaborate with VOLS?


In the exact way that you have been! Partnering on presentations, recognizing that we have a common audience, amplifying one another’s resources and events, sharing opportunities and information.

What is one key tip/piece of advice you have for our members who are veterans?


Get your life planning documents done now while you have the capacity to do so. I don’t want people to think that I think everyone will cognitively decline to the point where they can't take care of themselves, but it does happen. If you lose your capacity to execute legal documents, you may find yourself in a position where the only way, for example, your bills will get paid, or your lease will get renewed, or you'll continue to receive government benefits is if the court appoints a guardian to handle your affairs - this is a long and invasive process that potentially strips you of a lot of autonomy over your own life. If we can help folks avoid that by making sure they have, for example, a power of attorney and a health care proxy in place, we can make sure that our clients can age in place and exercise their own choices because someone that they know and trust has the legal authority to act on their behalf. Especially as we have seen during the pandemic, unexpected life events can happen, and it helps to have the peace of mind that all necessary documents are already in place. As an attorney my goal is to prevent risk, and I have a Power of Attorney and Healthcare Proxy. I hope to never need them, but it doesn't hurt to have them just in case I do.


Practically, with the exception of a Last Will & Testament, copies of signed documents are legally effective. Copies of documents appointing an agent should be given to your agent. Copies of your health care proxy and living will should also be given to your health care providers. Copies of your Power of Attorney should be given to your bank, Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid officials, and/or any agency or institution before which your agent intends to act on your behalf. Only your original will can be probated but you may want to provide copies to your executor and/or beneficiaries.

Jess Penkoff is the Staff Attorney for Housing Rights and Special Populations at Volunteers of Legal Service (VOLS). VOLS is a free legal services organization that works with volunteer law firm attorneys to serve New Yorkers. Veterans age 60 and older with low income and limited resources can obtain a Last Will & Testament, Power of Attorney, Health Care Proxy, Living Will, and Control of Remains form free of charge. Jess can be reached at (347) 521-5725 or jpenkoff@volsprobono.org.


About Bay Ridge Center

Bay Ridge Center serves 2,000+ seniors, veterans, and persons with disabilities by tackling three principal obstacles: food insecurity, the digital divide, and the lack of affordable health and wellness resources. Now in its 45th year, Bay Ridge Center is focused more than ever on improving life by feeding the hungry, offering digital literacy courses and affordable tech, and providing more than 5,000 visitors with free, virtual Zoom classes which promote a healthy life.


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Bay Ridge Center thanks Meals on Wheels America for its generous support through their Covid-19 Response Fund Grants.

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