It's the season of giving. The perfect time to celebrate Verdene Randolph.
That's because for more than half of her life, Randolph has given of herself. Yet, she's one of those people you'd probably never know of otherwise.
Unless, of course, you've lost your job and have been threatened with foreclosure because you can't pay your mortgage. Or you've fallen into credit-card debt and are wondering whether you should file for bankruptcy. Or you're entangled in some kind of custody issue and can't afford to pay one of those high-priced Rittenhouse Square lawyers.
Hmm. On second thought, given the state of the economy, maybe you have met Verdene.
(Oh, and don't call her Ms. Randolph or Ms. Verdene. "Just Verdene," she insists, her soft-spokenness the equivalent of a comforter.)
Verdene, 62, will officially retire this month as a paralegal at Community Legal Services and Philadelphia Legal Assistance. As an intake paralegal, she's the one on the front lines, the first person to meet with folks who are often distressed and depressed with life-altering problems and no money to pay for them.
Yet, for 42 years, she has operated with unflappable, compassionate professionalism.
"There are plenty of talented and dedicated people who want to do this work," says Anita Santos-Singh, executive director of Philadelphia Legal Assistance, since Verdene left Community Legal Services to work at PLA in '96. "But it's the history and the expertise that Verdene brought that will be difficult to rebuild. . . . That will take time."
Funny how life tells you when to keep still.
In 1968, 21-year-old Verdene applied for a job as a clerk at the old Legal Aid office.
"The supervisor looked at my resume and made a comment about my spotty job history," she remembers. By that point, she guesses she'd had five jobs and hadn't stayed at any of them longer than seven months.
Hey, chalk it up to youth.
Still, Verdene thought, "I'll show them. I'm going to get this job and stay a whole year!
"I wound up staying 42 years."
While at Legal Aid, she and the other paralegals handled the bulk of the work, because many of the lawyers volunteered or worked part time.
Verdene became expert at filing and preparing welfare cases and interviewing parents.
Later, when Legal Aid became Community Legal Services in 1976, Verdene established herself as the go-to person in the office, says Catherine Carr, CLS executive director.
"I remember I was the new lawyer, and she was the experienced paralegal. She was the one who helped me with welfare law and taught me a lot about our clients - their struggles, their lives," Carr says.
At Philadelphia Legal Services - a companion office of Community Legal Services, created to tap federal funding after a Newt Gingrich-led Congress barred CLS in 1995 from receiving federal money - Randolph worked general intake. Meaning she had to be a jack-of-all-trades for problem-solving.
What surprised her most was that "people in their 70s and 80s were $30,000 to $40,000 in credit-card debt, and a lot of it was because of their grandchildren," she notes. "Say, the grandson would get the grandmother to cosign for a car. Then he'd wreck the car. Now, the grandmother gets sued."
She would advise them about what they needed to do legally, but she'd talk to them straight-up, too.
"I'd tell the grandparents, 'If your grands mess up your name, they don't care about making messes, period.' "
Born and raised off 21st and Wharton in South Philly, where she still lives, in a pristine rowhouse decorated in muted neutrals and glass furnishings, Verdene definitely speaks the language of the neighborhood.
But in recent years, she has counseled a different crop of clients - the newly unemployed who find themselves unable to negotiate their harsher reality: Can I get health benefits?
Verdene has helped them all. Retiring, she says, will be bittersweet, but she looks forward to trips to Paris in June and South Africa in October. Also missionary work in Senegal with her church in 2012.
Looks as if Verdene's next chapters will be as fulfilling as the last 42.
"I never thought I knew what I wanted to do," she says. "I guess I found it and didn't know it."