Celebrating Judge Alice Schlesinger: 2024 Pillars of Change Honoree

For her profound dedication, exceptional legal expertise, and relentless commitment to justice in aiding incarcerated survivors of gender-based violence.

Judge Schlesinger’s unwavering commitment to aiding those in need shines through her extensive professional experience as both a Legal Aid Criminal Defense attorney and later as a pro bono attorney for incarcerated women.

Judge Schlesinger shared,

I believe my legal expertise as a former defense attorney helped obtain positive results in every case I handled as a pro bono parole attorney, including the one where volunteers from Sanctuary were also assisting the inmate. The resources, expertise, and commitment of the other Sanctuary volunteers was very rewarding and resulted in the positive outcome”.

After retiring from the bench, her deep dedication to justice led her to volunteer her time and skills with Sanctuary for Families. In this role, she focuses primarily on preparing inmates for their parole hearings with Sanctuary’s Incarcerated Gender Violence Survivors Initiative (IGVSI). With meticulous attention to detail, Judge Schlesinger assembles comprehensive “packages” of supportive information for the Parole Board. Additionally, she plays a crucial role in coaching her clients, providing them with the guidance and confidence needed to navigate their hearings effectively.

Isabelle Demenge, Pro Bono Counsel with Sanctuary’s IGVSI, speaks highly of Judge Schlesinger’s contributions noting that her involvement in a case was desired for some time. In collaboration with IGVSI, Judge Schlesinger worked on a particularly challenging parole case for a client who had been incarcerated for nearly 25 years after surviving an unimaginable abusive childhood that included sex trafficking by her father. Judge Schlesinger’s relentless dedication was pivotal in securing the client’s release on parole in November 2023. Her work for Sanctuary spanned countless hours of consultation, both in person and virtually. She not only provided legal counsel but also acted as a trusted confidant to the client, helping her navigate the trauma and anxiety associated with her impending difficult parole hearing.

Judge Schlesinger’s impact on Sanctuary’s staff, clients, and the agency as a whole is undeniable. Her wealth of legal expertise, coupled with her compassionate approach, has been invaluable to the work of the IGSVI team. Isabelle Demenge emphasizes that Judge Schlesinger also serves as an exemplary mentor to younger attorneys, inspiring them with her dedication and skill.

The multitude of ways Judge Schlesinger has shared her time, thoughtfulness, and endless knowledge are evident and make her an obvious choice as a 2024 Pillars of Change honoree.

A huge thank you to Judge Schlesinger for her hard work and dedication to Sanctuary for Families and survivors of gender-based violence.

To learn more about Judge Schlesinger and her work, please join us on April 18th from 6:00-8:00 PM at Pillars of Change.


Celebrating Acompañamientos: 2024 Pillars of Change Honorees

For their outstanding dedication and invaluable support in aiding asylum seekers through the intricate and often traumatic immigration process.

By Deirdre Stradone, Co-Deputy Director, Immigration Intervention Project; and Melissa Chandler, Senior Immigration Specialist, Immigration Intervention Project.

For the past three years, the Immigration Intervention Project (IIP) at Sanctuary for Families has heavily relied on its supportive partnership with the Acompañamientos. Acompañamientos is a volunteer-run group that provides accompaniment and support to migrants in New York City so they do not face immigration removal proceedings alone. Acompañamientos volunteers stand in solidarity with migrants in their removal proceedings before the New York Immigration Courts and at their Order of Supervision reporting appointments with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The work of these incredible volunteers allows migrants to feel welcomed, respected, valued, and supported as they navigate the United States’ complex, confusing, and traumatizing immigration process.

Since the development of the partnership between IIP and the Acompañamientos volunteers, the Acompañamientos have provided support to asylum seekers by first referring them to IIP. If IIP is able to accept the case for either direct representation or placement with pro bono law firm partners, or if IIP is limited to only assisting with pro se representation, the Acompañamientos remain heavily involved with the case.

Volunteer lead, Ann Currier, recalls a particularly memorable moment,

“Acompañamientos members accompanied a young single mother, who lived in a shelter, to many of her hearings. She was really struggling, had been victimized [in the United States] as well. We tried to help her find assistance, but it wasn’t until a member referred her to Sanctuary that she received the legal and emotional support she needed. [Immigration Intervention Projection attorney at Sanctuary for Families] Deirdre Stradone represented her, and she won her asylum case. It would not have happened without Sanctuary”.

In the past year specifically, the Acompañamientos assisted with the representation of a total of fifteen direct/pro bono represented clients and pro se asylum seekers. Their volunteer work included assistance with filing of documents to the Immigration Court, translation of documents, preparation of relevant documents, high-quality and trauma-informed interpretation during client meetings, trial preparation and psychological evaluations, accompaniment to Immigration Court hearings and reporting appointments with ICE, assistance with the preparation and submission of application for asylum and employment authorization, and access to other brief services and Know Your Rights trainings that allow these brave survivors to understand the options available to them and prevent them from becoming a target of immigration fraud.

The work of Acompañamientos volunteers has made it possible for many migrant survivors of gender-based violence to receive access to Sanctuary’s holistic services. Often, Acompañamientos volunteers continue to stand in solidarity with migrants who are ordered removed by immigration judges and provide much-needed comfort and encouragement for migrants to not give up in their hope to live safely and with dignity. Though there are many volunteers who provide support through Acompañamientos, we want to acknowledge these leaders. The work they have provided over the years to asylum seekers, to those who are pro se, and to those who eventually become clients of the Immigration Intervention Project at Sanctuary for Families is invaluable and life-changing. Without their assistance, IIP would not be able to reach and serve the vast number of asylum seekers that we have in the past year.

Acompañamientos volunteer leaders for Sanctuary for Families:

Ann Currier
Joan Racho-Jansen
Lamia Guellati
Margaret (Peggy) Conte
Marisa Lohse
Patricia (Pat) Ferrick
Penny Babel
Santiago (Santi) Domenech

To learn more about Acompañamientos and their work, please join us on April 18th from 6:00-8:00 PM at Pillars of Change.


Celebrating Laura Dionisio: 2024 Pillars of Change Honoree

For her unwavering creativity and passion in bringing the wonders of STEM to the children at Sarah Burke House, creating a safe and inspiring environment that fosters curiosity and joy.

Laura Dionisio began volunteering at Sanctuary for Families in early 2023 after being encouraged by a friend. The mission of Sanctuary really resonated with Laura, and knowing that she could help provide a safe and fun learning space, she felt drawn to work directly with the children.

Sarah Burke House, Sanctuary’s large transitional shelter, was looking for workshop leaders to provide enriching opportunities for school-age children in their on-site Afterschool Program. Laura was onboarded as a volunteer and connected to the Children and Family Services Program team. For over a year, Laura has been creating and leading monthly STEM workshops. Laura plans the activities, makes a flier to hang at the shelter, teaches a fun science lesson, and brings all of the necessary materials to create a STEM project.

To date, the children have made rubberband-propelled cars, created rollercoasters out of paper and marbles, built towers using spaghetti and tape, learned about chemical reactions through writing messages using invisible ink, and other fun activities that make learning and STEM fun for the kids!

Heidi Gomez, Program Coordinator, Children and Family Services at Sarah Burke House, says,

“Not only is Laura a passionate and incredible volunteer, she is a woman who currently works in STEM as well. She brings compassion and joy to the program and is a great role model for our students who may want to explore different areas of STEM. One thing that she always leaves behind with us at Sarah Burke House is wonder, curiosity and excitement to try new things!”

Laura shares a couple of favorite memories, “One time a younger child, around 4 years old, joined the STEM workshop for the first time. One of the older girls who had been to the STEM workshop a few times was explaining to the younger one that ‘Miss Laura is an engineer, and she does fun science stuff with us!’ That really warmed my heart”.

“Every time I go to the classroom and see the different themed art work they do like for Black History month or women’s history month I’m reminded of how much the staff care for these kids. There’s such positivity and encouragement despite the situation the kids were previously living in. Many times, I’ve seen the kids write encouraging words on the white board and I’m humbled by it every time. It reminds me to think positively even on ‘bad” days.'” — Laura

It is evident that Laura has given the children and grown-ups something to look forward to each month. The staff shares that Laura inquires about other themes or events happening at the residence so she can connect her plans to other lessons or seasonal fun taking place. The thought and time Laura puts into her volunteering goes far beyond her hour-long sessions. It’s abundantly clear from the questions and mentions of her name that she has left a lasting impression on the youngest residents of Sarah Burke House that will live on long after they have left the shelter; one of hopefully many positive memories created during an otherwise difficult time of transition in their young lives.

Flyers created by Laura for her workshops:

“One of the activities she brought was to make our own marble run/roller coaster. There were all girls that day of various patience eves and she just let them explore and figure out how they wanted it to fit together. It was magical to see how each of them pitched in and how Laura guided them to work together. During the build, one of the girls wrote ‘girls work’ for the name of the building company.” 

To learn more about Laura and her work, please join us on April 18th from 6:00-8:00 PM at Pillars of Change.


Celebrating Angela Ayora: 2024 Pillars of Change Honoree

For her exceptional dedication, unwavering commitment to creating safe spaces, compassionate counseling, and significant contributions to the Children and Family Services Programs.

Angela’s journey with Sanctuary for Families began in the fall of 2023, guided by her Internship advisor, who recommended the organization for her required field placement as part of her Master of Social Work degree. Drawn to Sanctuary for their commendable work aiding survivors of gender-based violence, Angela was eager to contribute her skills and learn more about the important mission. Currently serving as a Clinical Social Work Intern within the Children and Family Services Program, Angela manages a caseload, offering trauma-informed counseling services on a weekly basis. Additionally, she plays a key role in facilitating the Weyerhauser workshops for mothers of male-identifying children and co-facilitates a Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Club catering to children ages 8-12.

Angela shares,

“I believe that the work the agency does has a lasting impact. While I am just a part of a whole, I provide my clients with a safe space where they can feel comfortable and safe to share their stories. My goal is to be there for them, providing support and care throughout their healing journey.”

A particularly memorable moment for Angela was when a client expressed feeling safe and secure within the office environment. This validation underscores Angela’s commitment to creating a nurturing space for all her clients.

Angela’s contributions extend beyond her direct interactions with clients and far beyond the requirements of her internship placement. She has been instrumental in collaborating with various stakeholders, including family members, legal entities, schools, and other systems involved in a family’s life. Her dedication is further exemplified by her proactive approach to attending additional trainings and meetings, even on non-assigned days, showcasing her eagerness to learn and grow.

Katherine Roman, Angela’s supervisor, speaks highly of her work ethic and personal qualities, which include compassion, humility, humor, curiosity, and self-discipline. Angela’s calm demeanor in crisis situations and her ability to forge positive relationships with clients and staff stand out as her defining traits.

One of Angela’s most significant contributions was highlighted by a parent who shared that, due to Angela’s compassionate and dedicated counseling, their child’s frequent nightmares had ceased, and the child appeared visibly happier. Angela’s SEL group has also been a success among the children, offering them a platform to learn and bond over group activities.

Angela’s time at Sanctuary for Families will soon end with her upcoming graduation. The agency recognizes her invaluable contributions and hopes to retain her talent in the future. Her dedication, passion, and positive impact on the families she has worked with make her a deserving Pillars of Change honoree.

In conclusion, Angela’s journey at Sanctuary has been marked by her genuine desire to make a difference. From creating safe spaces for the youngest survivors to actively participating in workshops and group sessions, Angela’s impact resonates deeply with everyone she encounters. As supervisor Katherine Roman fondly recalls, their supervisory meetings, affectionately termed “spilling the tea,” will be dearly missed. Angela’s presence has undeniably enriched the lives of Sanctuary staff and clients alike, and her future in the field of social work will undoubtedly continue to change lives.

To learn more about Angela and her work, please join us on April 18th from 6:00-8:00 PM at Pillars of Change.