Jacksonville attorney Mike Freed was motivated in 2016 to find a purpose that would bring together individuals in a positive effort focused on doing good. Raising money for indigent populations that were unable to obtain legal services was a logical choice for a lawyer, and Freed knew he wanted to go big to make an impact. But how?
“I decided I would run across the state,” said Freed, a business litigation shareholder at Gunster. “But I wasn’t a runner! I taught myself over the next two months to run long distances, then ran a marathon. Eight months later, I ran six marathons in six days from the Supreme Court in Tallahassee to the Duval County Courthouse in Jacksonville and raised $67,000 for Jacksonville Area Legal Aid (JALA).”
Inspired with an idea to expand the run, JALA CEO Jim Kowalski, Freed and Dr. Jerry Bridgham, chief medical officer of Wolfson Children’s Hospital, discussed how to support an underserved need in the community. With their approval, Kowalski approached the Baptist Health Foundation to propose the creation of a fund focused on the legal needs of pediatric patients and their families. JALA and Baptist Health entered into a five-year agreement to establish an endowment fund, with the foundation pledging $1.25 million if JALA raised $1 million by the end of 2022, or a 125% match on each dollar raised. Freed to Run was born.
The endowment will provide funding in perpetuity for JALA’s Northeast Florida Medical Legal Partnership (NFMLP), which partners with Wolfson Children’s Hospital, Nemours Children’s Health, UF Health Specialty Pediatric Clinics, and Community PedsCare to provide pediatric patients and their families with civil legal help such as access to health coverage, landlord-tenant issues, family law matters and other problems impacting children’s health.
Stephen Pitel, director of the NFMLP, explained how the medical-legal partnership uses a referral system to reduce enormous burdens that children’s families are facing outside their immediate medical issues.
“We train medical providers and staff how to identify social and legal problems that pediatric patients and their families are dealing with, and they communicate that to me at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid,” Pitel said. “We then provide them with resources the families may need. For example, a child with asthma who has mold in his apartment will continue to require ER visits, as solving housing matters is outside the medical profession. So, JALA attorneys who specialize in those legal issues work with the patient and family to solve that problem and thereby prevent future medical crises for that child who has been living in those conditions.”
The pandemic has raised another critical issue facing pediatric patients and their families.
“Unfortunately, through COVID or other reasons, we are seeing many situations where parents are no longer able to care for their child, and a grandparent or other family member becomes responsible. However, they do not have the legal authority to make medical decisions for those children. We can step in and arrange temporary custody and guardianships through our network,” Pitel said. “Our goal is to help improve their health and lives, and this program is making that happen.”
In the last year alone, more than 400 patients and families were helped.
Dr. Bridgham has supported this relationship and integration between Wolfson and NFMLP since its inception.
“When we were approached five years ago for this partnership, we did not fully understand the extent of the need,” said Dr. Bridgham. “There have been many aspects to the social issues brought to light by this program. We have been able to identify many non-medical problems that exist before pediatric patients come to the hospital that impedes their care and timely discharge. The example of legal guardianship is just one that significantly impacts children who have to stay in limbo at the hospital after their medical condition is improved, until their care at home can be determined.
“Our front-line nurse managers identify those patients and families who have the greatest needs, and the opportunity to collaborate with our Jacksonville legal community is so important,” Dr. Bridgham added. “It’s very gratifying and we are grateful to Freed to Run for this meaningful and life-changing help.”
Each year, approximately 200 people from local community groups and organizations run as teams and individuals to participate in the annual point-to-point relay through six marathons in six days each fall, each raising funds toward the effort. This is a unique, compassionate and successful mission to help vulnerable and low-income pediatric patients and their families with their legal and medical needs.
“At this point, we have raised $1.9 million through Freed to Run. By the end of this year, we will have reached $2.25 million, enough to continuously fund this program,” Freed said.
This year’s event will be held November 14-19. To register or to donate to help Freed to Run reach its $2.25 million goal this year, visit: www.jaxlegalaid.org/freedtorun.