The first 10 months of the Community Justice Center’s life have been anything but boring. When the Trenton-based nonprofit, formed to offer free or low-cost legal services to those living well below the poverty line, opened its doors last March the reception was overwhelmingly positive (U.S. 1, March 25, 2009).

But at the time the operation essentially was running on vapors. The CJC ran on little more than the savings of its founders and the hope that enough money would come in before their noble experiment met inflexible reality. The center took on clients, yes, but court cases do not move swiftly, and any fees would not come in for months.

Add to that the fact that just because you file for nonprofit status doesn’t mean you automatically have it. Being recognized as a nonprofit usually takes more than a year, which means you are not allowed to solicit donations as a nonprofit.

Some needling of the IRS by two congressmen helped fast-track the CJC’s nonprofit status. So fast, in fact, that the center was designated 501-c3 status in June. But it still didn’t bring in needed funds overnight.

“In October we had $17 in our bank account,” says Melissa Gertz, above, executive director and co-founder of the CJC. “This was in the third week of October and all our bills were due on the first.” Gertz feared she might have to attempt a loan, or worse, close the enterprise. Then $12,000 in back fees owed by the state came in.

In December the Princeton Area Community Foundation gave the CJC a $15,000 grant and the center published in its newsletter a list of donors helping offset the surprisingly high cost of operation. While $15,000 might sound like a lot to receive at once — and it is, Gertz says — the plain fact is that operating expenses for the CJC are roughly $13,000 a month.

Fortunately for the center, which is run by Gertz, Bordentown attorney Lisa Turowsky, and environmental attorney C. Patterson McKenna, it has developed about 90 clients. That’s 10 shy of its goals for the end of the year, but enough to make Gertz optimistic that by summer the center will be able to operate on a normal money-making cycle.

Personal income will take a little more work, though. Gertz and the CJC staff have yet to make enough money to draw a salary from the center, but she expects to see that problem remedied by autumn.

Gertz received much media attention when the CJC was announced last winter. Most zeroed in on an accident that temporarily took her sight (and almost took her life) in 2004, when she was most of the way through law school at Rutgers. But the media-friendly version of the story — heroine rises from life-altering event to fight for the poor and desperate — was more dramatic license than truth. Gertz says she was a born progressive who had always wanted to be an attorney fighting for people who otherwise had no voice. Her accident made her more able to understand the plight of the handicapped and the sick, but did not ignite some heretofore non-existent passion to help the needy.

Gertz grew up in Ringoes, where she first learned about the civil rights movement during middle-school classes. In high school she was active in Amnesty International. She studied sociology at Oberlin College and at Eugene Lang College in New York, earning her bachelor’s there in 2002. She also minored in gender studies. She earned her J.D. from Rutgers in 2005.

With the first-year bugs working their way out of the system, Gertz is confident that the CJC has found its footing. Subsequent media focus has increased the profile of the center, and politicians from all levels have lent their support and endorsements to the cause. The center is also waiting on whether it will receive any of three pending grants, Gertz says.

— Scott Morgan

Community Justice Center, 310 West State Street, Third Floor, Trenton 08618; 609-218-5120; fax, 609-218-5126. Melissa Gertz, executive director. Home page: www.nj-cjc.org.

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