For Carmen Chavez, her job is her passion -- giving a voice to those who oftentimes can't be heard.
As executive director of San Diego's Casa Cornelia Law Center, Chavez helps coordinate representation of unaccompanied immigrant children who face significant legal challenges.
The organization she heads also intervenes on behalf of victims of domestic violence, abused and abandoned children and persecuted immigrants seeking political asylum, providing pro bono legal services as the region's largest public interest firm.
"It's very difficult being an executive director of any organization, and that program couldn't be headed up by a better advocate," said Amy Fitzpatrick, executive director of the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program. "She cares so much about her work."
Chavez began her career as a paralegal for the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program and then joined Casa Cornelia as a volunteer when it was founded by SDVLP staff member Ann Durst and the Society of the Holy Child Jesus in 1993.
Chavez left briefly to attend Loyola Law School in Los Angeles before rejoining Casa Cornelia in the mid-1990s as a staff attorney. She took over as executive director two years ago.
During her tenure with Casa Cornelia, she has watched -- and been instrumental in helping -- the organization grow from two staff members in 1993 to 16 today with more than 100 attorney volunteers. It also employs about 40-45 student volunteers every year.
"They take on incredibly hard cases," Fitzpatrick said. "Even if they were paid, many private firms would not take on the types of cases Casa Cornelia takes. They are the voice for the underdog. With the immigration debate that we're having in this country now, they're champions for people who need representation in a difficult climate."
In 2009, Casa Cornelia served more than 600 members of the San Diego community, helping them obtain access to pro bono representation.
Chavez said it's been heartening to see the "incredible response" from the legal community in assisting those who are underrepresented.
"It's been wonderful, the generosity from the private bar, law firms of various sizes and solo practitioners," she said. "It's allowed us as an organization to multiply the number of people that can be served."
In October, the organization celebrated its second annual La Mancha awards, which honor outstanding pro bono contributions by law firms, individual attorneys and law students. The event was attended by more than 200 members of the community.
While Chavez now handles day-to-day management of the office, she's still involved in legal strategies and conversations in the office.
"Part of my work that has been fulfilling," Chavez said, "has been the opportunity to mentor so many attorneys and students."
She said immigration is a humanitarian issue, not a political one.
The law center has to deal with limited money and no government funding. But staff attorneys don't turn anybody away, SDVLP's Fitzpatrick said. And they have a big advocate on their side in Chavez.
"She's very smart and extremely dedicated to the work they do, and that's a winning combination," Fitzpatrick said.