The Rochester Black Bar Association continues to demonstrate its dedication to building bridges and breaking down barriers in the community. The Bridge Builder Award, now in its seventh year, was presented to Sheila A. Gaddis on Thursday at a “Bridges to Success” networking event held at the First Federal Plaza.
RBBA President Duwaine Bascoe (Woods Oviatt Gilman LLP) gave brief remarks before presenting the 2017 Bridge Builder Award to Gaddis, who came to Rochester 15 years ago to head up Volunteer Legal Services Project Inc. of Monroe County a few months after its founder and leader, Hanna Cohen, died earlier in 2002.
As VLSP executive director since June 24, 2002, Gaddis has embraced Rochester as her home, leading VLSP through a building move, technology advancements, and new programs that extend civil legal services to the underserved throughout the region.
“I was handed a jewel,” Gaddis said. “VLSP’s mission was compelling and the Rochester attorneys were passionate supporters. I just needed not to screw up and keep the support of the community while simultaneously enlarging the base of pro bono and financial support.”
She added: “I’ve really tried to achieve those goals for the benefit of the clients we serve.”
The current VLSP panel of pro bono attorneys numbers around 1,600. The VLSP board was expanded to include corporation counsel of small and medium-size corporations. These are just two examples where Gaddis’ efforts demonstrate her skill at building bridges and bringing people together.
Revenue growth, case management technology, a revamped website, and the establishment of three endowments to guarantee future programs are additional achievements under her leadership. She started the Art of Lawyering fundraiser to help increase revenue and broaden public recognition, and reminded everyone that this year’s event is Thursday, Oct. 19.
At the same time
Since 2007, Gaddis has split her days between VLSP and Barclay Damon LLP, where she is a partner with numerous leadership responsibilities. She chairs the Diversity & Inclusion Committee for the firm’s 230 attorneys in 11 offices. She is also one of the founders of the firm’s Women’s Forum, another initiative geared to proactively recruit, retain and promote a diverse workforce at every level of firm leadership.
She recently completed a three-year term on the New York State Bar Foundation Board. She has been active in state bar activities since she moved to Rochester. These connections at the state level have kept her involved in a multitude of task forces and committees.
In 2011, the state’s top administrative judge appointed Gaddis to the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services, a connection that helped bring the Seventh Judicial District Help Center into existence. In its fifth year of operation under VLSP oversight, the Help Center will likely surpass the 2,831 people served in 2016 as the community awareness of the resource grows.
In 2013, Gaddis was appointed co-chair of a New York State Bar Association committee, The Special Committee on Re-entry, examining ways to better integrate individuals released from prison back into the community.
She also served a three-year term on the Grievance Committee of the Seventh Judicial District of New York State, which examines disciplinary action within an eight-county area.
She was elected to the Brighton Town Board in 2007, again expanding her connections in the community. At the conclusion of her four-year term, she was recognized for her work on a community plan to revitalize the main transit corridor of Brighton, which was awarded a $1.5 million grant.
New pathways and bridges
Gaddis intends to retire from VLSP in early 2018, so the VLSP board named a Succession Committee to search for her replacement in collaboration with the national search firm Cochran, Cochran and Yale.
VLSP Board President Laura Smalley thanked Gaddis for her excellent leadership of VLSP. “During her 15 years she has built a stable financial foundation and positioned the organization to grow and better serve low-income Monroe County residents.”
In accepting the award, Gaddis reflected on the vital role RBBA has played in her connection to the Rochester community.
“I couldn’t do what I do if I didn’t know all of you had my back,” Gaddis said.
Nora A. Jones is a Rochester-area freelance writer.