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Head of the Class: An experience that haunts also motivates

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Mark Grotto volunteers at the Boulevard

Mark Grotto, a 3L at The John Marshall Law School in Chicago, grew up around the law. So it was no surprise that he’d follow in his father’s footsteps and pursue law school. What wasn’t predictable was the event that solidified Grotto’s desire to be a lawyer and his dedication to helping the homeless.

“The September 11 terror attacks were definitely the catalyst that propelled me into the law profession,” said Grotto. “I was angry and wanted to do more to protect the country I love. As a result, I developed this drive to be the best person I can be.”

Mark GrottoAlong the way, Grotto (left) found a passion for helping the homeless. It was the result of an unfortunate experience in his early twenties. “One early morning, a few of my friends and I were leaving McDonald’s,” he recalled. “We passed several individuals who were homeless.

“Some of my friends determined it would be funny to steal from one of those people and proceeded to walk away with a woman’s plastic bag of belongings,” said Grotto. “I sat helplessly in the backseat and begged that they return the bag but to no avail.

“A few days later, my friends told me they’d found this woman’s diary and birth certificate in that bag and learned her name was Linda,” added Grotto. “My friends seemed surprised that the contents of her diary were sad and depressing.

My response was, ‘What did you expect?’ as I left in a fury.” Hoping to find Linda, Grotto even returned to that McDonald’s some days later. He was ready to give her $1,000 that he’d taken from his own bank account. He never found Linda again.

That incident still troubled Grotto when shortly after beginning law school, he was offered an opportunity to be a member of the associate board for The Boulevard, a homeless outreach program that offers medical respite care, support, and housing services to Chicago’s ill and injured homeless adults.

“Every day, I’m haunted by what happened to Linda,” stated Grotto. “I’m angry with myself for not being able to stop it from happening. I’m angry with my friends for doing something like that. And I’m angry with myself for once being friends with people like that. “In a way, my work with The Boulevard has been an attempt to make up for what happened that day outside that McDonald’s,”admitted Grotto. “But I know it will never be enough.”

Since its founding in 1994, The Boulevard, formerly the Interfaith House, has helped more than 7,500 people rebuild their lives. It offers a safe and stable atmosphere for residents to complete their medical recovery plans and gain valuable skills to stop the cycle of homelessness. At any given time, roughly 60 residents receive services from The Boulevard. “It’s the associate board’s mission to, first, raise public awareness,” explained Grotto. “We do that by hosting events and fundraisers. They typically consist of and are geared toward activities younger people would be interested in, such as tastings at local restaurants, happy hours at local bars, and sporting events.

“The board also has four ‘share-a-meals’ a year where we cook meals for the residents of The Boulevard,” said Grotto. “It’s my job, as well as that of everyone on the board, to organize these events and participate in the share-a-meals.” Grotto has always found value in the proverb, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” He supports The Boulevard because the organization sticks close to that motto. It’s not about giving homeless people money but addressing the root causes and the factors that perpetuate homelessness, along with providing solutions.

And thanks to his involvement with The Boulevard, Grotto said he’s gained a new outlook on life. “It’s really made me more humble,” he reflected. “In my experience, a lot of people like to think of themselves as being important and that there’s some significance to popularity. The work I’ve done with The Boulevard has exposed me to problems people experience with things I take for granted. In the end, we’re all part of the same world and must work together to achieve our common goals.” Balance is the key for Grotto when it comes to being involved in law school and community service. His advice to fellow law students is to find something they’re passionate about and to go out and do it—just don’t overdo it. “Find a healthy balance of volunteer work and completing your assignments, and encourage your friends to do the same,” encouraged Grotto. “Paying it forward is a rewarding experience that can’t be matched by anything else.”

LYNAE TUCKER is the student editor of Student Lawyer and a second year student at University of South Dakota School of Law in Vermillion.

Lynae Tucker Lynae Tucker is a former Student Editor for Student Lawyer Magazine, She is a J.D. candidate at the University of South Dakota and recieved her Communications and Media degree from DePaul University. She hopes to pursue an LLM in Employment law post-graduation. She gained experience in television, radio and print media through student media and philanthropy work.