Interview With Mentor Phil Stoffel of World Relief Wisconsin

CLINIC has recently launched a new project called the Recent Arrivals Capacity Building Mentorship Initiative in which leaders of existing community-based legal service organizations are invited to provide mentorship to aspiring Department of Justice representatives who are looking to gain accreditation and build up their legal service programs. CLINIC sat down with Phil Stoffel, one of the mentors who participated in the initiative in Wisconsin, to hear about his experience serving as a mentor for the project.

Q: Can you tell me about your role and how long you’ve worked at World Relief Wisconsin?

A: My name is Phil Stoffel and I am the regional director of immigration legal services here at World Relief Wisconsin — Fox Valley. I am a Department of Justice partially accredited representative and I’ve worked at this organization for more than ten years. My office director and I built this program over the last ten years, and we now have four full-time staff members: 3 full time DOJ representatives and an administrative assistant. We also contract with an attorney particularly for asylum applications.

We serve a region in Wisconsin that has very few options for legal services for immigrants, particularly low-income families. My colleague and I recognized that a critical need was going unmet for immigrants about 10 years ago, and we’ve been operational as a legal service provider for the past 8 years.

Q: What inspires you to do this work?

A: Honestly, my faith inspires me to do this work, my faith in Jesus. Once I came to know that there are people in different situations from me that are really struggling and suffering, I felt called by this awareness and my faith to do work to help make their lives better.

This work we do is such a great responsibility; not only are we able help people get green cards and citizenship, and generally provide legal help, but we’re also doing God’s work by reunifying families, giving people hope and recognizing dignity. When I see families reunited at the airport, there’s nothing like it — it’s like a glimpse of heaven. We try to make a difference in as many immigrant families’ lives as we can, though we know we can’t help everyone. Even though we have many cases that drag on for years, the success cases are what give us hope and keep us going.

Over 10 years ago, I came into this work after making a trip to East Asia to visit my sister and her family, who were missionaries there. It opened my eyes to the realities of how people are treated around the world — and what would make them try and come to the United States to seek better lives.

When we came back after that, I applied for a position at World Relief as an employment manager, helping newcomers find work. My director and I quickly realized that our immigrant clients were having their legal needs go unmet – they were missing out on huge opportunities in work and life because they couldn’t get the legal help they needed.

In 2013 we started to get the wheels turning to become a legal services organization. I started the process of getting trained to be a partially accredited representative, took all the trainings, worked on the lengthy application, etc. In 2015, we were recognized and accredited and we opened our doors to immigrant clients.

Q: What prompted you to participate as a mentor for the CBMI?

A: I knew Silvana Arista (of CLINIC) through another colleague, Janice Beers, who collaborates with our program through the state of Wisconsin. Janice and Silvana were great, and there was a lot of trust already built up between us. When they asked me to consider it, I knew I had to.

I also felt a duty to help spread the knowledge we’ve gained in the past 10 years. We are a small program, but we’re well-run and we have a great foundation. We can share our lessons and successes to new programs in the state of Wisconsin, where there is great need for immigration legal services outside of the major cities.

Q: What has the mentor-mentee relationship looked like?

A: We were paired with a couple of members of the Ethiopian Community Development Council from Wausau, Wisconsin, who were aspiring accredited representatives and who hope to build up their program. I love in-person work and relationship-building, so I quickly proposed that the mentees come in person and spend a 40-hour work week with us so that they could learn and observe. The 40 hours that they were with us were well worth it — more intense, perhaps, then spread out meetings or calls, but it worked well for everyone. They got the whole feel for the work and how we run by being here in person.

Now we have an ongoing and mutually beneficial relationship with them – we can walk with them as they get on their feet as a legal services organization, and they can direct some of their potential clients to us in the meantime, so that we can start to help the population they’ll be serving. It was a very natural and cohesive mentorship experience – they had resettlement experience so we all spoke the same language. Silvana and Janice set us up with a great set of mentees and were so helpful facilitating the whole process.

Q: How has mentoring aspiring accredited representatives impacted your program or community?

A: It has encouraged me a lot. I think sometimes when you sign up for things like this, you think your program was going to be exclusively doing the giving, but we received a lot of encouragement and insight from the mentees as well. It’s helped us evaluate and see where we’re at as an organization, to have outside opinions and questions that were asked about how we run. It makes us consider how we can do things better, but also affirmed us and shown us strengths we didn’t even know. This has encouraged me particularly given that we hope to soon open another site in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and made me excited to perhaps start a new program from scratch.

Q: What advice do you have for DOJ accredited representatives or attorneys who may consider mentorship in the future?

A: I would encourage them to think of the value in it, to think about the bigger picture. It can be so easy to look at the busyness it might entail and focus only on that. A lot of us recently went through the Afghanistan refugee situation, where there were time crunches and extra stress to serve clients, and it was hard to consider taking time out to mentor others. However, we know that it is so worth it.

Whatever state you’re in, there’s always a need, particularly in rural areas and parts of country that don’t have these services. We should do all we can to expand services and remember it’s not about us; there are really needy people out there. We can continue asking ourselves, what can I do to make a bigger difference even outside of my own daily work and program? We need to remember we are not competitors but colleagues; we should uplift each other for the larger goal of serving people in need.