December 18, 2019
Deana Cummings, one of Legal Aid of WV’s FAST advocates, had a somewhat humorous path to getting hired at our Beckley office in the summer of 2003. As a single mother of two young boys, she decided that she needed to move back to her hometown of Beckley after living in North Carolina for several years post-graduation. One Saturday evening while visiting home in Beckley, she decided to meet up with some of her friends.
She met a guy and got to know him a bit, told him about her recent move back to town, and decided to give him her number. The next morning, he followed up with a phone call during which he told her about a job posting he saw in the paper for a paralegal opening with Legal Aid of WV (LAWV). “I never heard from that guy again and could not tell you what he looked like or even what is name was, but I took his advice and applied for the paralegal position,” says Deana. She got an interview then was hired as the WV WORKS paralegal and pro bono coordinator.
For five years, Deana advocated as a WV WORKS paralegal, where she helped West Virginians in need of Social Security Disability benefits secure and maintain them. Her additional pro bono coordinator title meant she also involved developed relationships with local attorneys and educated them about the importance of volunteering, recruiting them as pro bono attorneys for LAWV.
Deana is one of those people who doesn’t know a stranger; combined with her past experience working with law firms in North Carolina (and almost attending law school herself), Deana was a perfect fit for both advocacy and outreach. In 2008, after excelling in one type of LAWV advocacy, she moved on to become a FAST family advocate for 13 counties in southern West Virginia.
FAST stands for Family Advocacy Support and Training, and its staff serve West Virginia families with school-aged children experiencing emotional or behavioral disorders that make the traditional school structure more difficult. Deana sums up the program, saying:
“I help families navigate the process of getting their children the appropriate supports, services, and accommodations that they need to be successful in school. I make sure families understand their rights under the various laws that govern education, and I also make sure students with disabilities are not discriminated against in extra-curricular activities, field trips, and sports. We assure proper complaints are being filed when necessary by consulting with our attorneys on our cases, and we often attend multiple meetings to get what our clients need in school.”
The FAST program is made up of four family advocates, like Deana; one FAST attorney; and one family support specialist. FAST advocates have three main job functions: to directly advocate for our clients in the school system, to present various trainings to families and community agencies, and to do outreach to spread the awareness of children’s mental health and children’s advocacy issues across the state.
FAST staff also regularly conduct trainings on special education laws, including topics like IDEA, Policy 2419, Section 504, and Youth Mental Health First Aid. “We are heavily involved with our community partners and have made great contacts in the school system,” Deana says. “It allows us to make systemic changes as well as direct advocacy for our clients.”
Even though Deana grew up in Beckley and knew the scale of need to some degree, she never realized just how many West Virginians need the services FAST and LAWV provide. Not only that, but the need has increased in recent years because different forms of family units are becoming more common, and in some cases, advocacy has become increasingly important. Deana considers the FAST program crucial for providing a “level playing field” for children in West Virginia’s schools, which ultimately means a better educational future for all children.
“Our program is set up with advocates and attorneys that follow cases from start to finish,” says Deana. “We often spend hours attending school meetings with our clients, who tell us that it is intimidating attending school meetings alone. They often say that meetings are completely different when we attend in regards to how they are treated and the results that they are able to obtain. The meetings are not only intimidating but emotional for parents. Having an advocate that can help them navigate the system and advocate for their rights and their children’s rights is so helpful because a good foundation for a child can make all the difference in their future.”
When Deana is not helping other parents, she is a supermom in her own right. She is in her first year of cross-country coaching at her son’s school, and her five children love Disney, Harry Potter, and the beach, so of course, they try to incorporate that into their vacations during time off. She also credits her husband, mother, step-father, and her late father for supporting her through the ups, downs, and career moves over the years.
Being a family advocate means that the school-year is exceptionally busy for FAST staff, but Deana assures us that it’s more than worth it. “I love the work I do as a FAST Family Advocate. I love going into schools and advocating for the best interest of students and making connections with parents, children, school staff, and community partners. We have some great teachers, principals, special education directors, and superintendents all across our state. I am blessed to be able to help families navigate these systems and make sure their rights as parents are not being violated. And I have been super blessed to have worked and to be working with some of the best paralegals, advocates, and attorneys in the state over the past 16 years.”