Lourdes Garcia slipped out of Cuba with her family when she was 7 years old, carrying little more than the clothes she could cram into a suitcase. Her parents left behind good jobs, furnishings, a large extended family.
It was hard rebuilding their lives once they landed in Seattle, said Lourdes, who today works for the county’s Department of Public Defense. But her family’s remarkable story also instilled in her the importance of helping others – in part, because of the role model of her father, a man who helped countless Cuban refugees over the years.
“I remember waking up and having 17 strangers at the breakfast table,” she said with a laugh.
“He always said you have to put yourself out there and help others who need help. My parents were very giving people,” she said. As a result, she added, “I feel I’m meant to be here. I understand the purpose of public defense.”
Little wonder, then, that she has made it virtually her second home. Lou, as she goes by, started working at what was then called the Northwest Defenders Association (NDA) 30 years ago, when it first opened its doors. She was one of seven founding employees – affectionately known as “The Magnificent Seven” after the famous 1960 Western.
The new firm set up shop in the Interuban Building in Pioneer Square and began representing indigent clients in Seattle Municipal Court. It was founded by Rufus McKee, a public defender at Associated Counsel for the Accused, another public defense agency, who wanted to promote greater diversity in public defense. NDA was the first minority-run public defense firm in Seattle.
Lou did virtually everything – short of representing clients – in those early days. She handled court runs and docketing, took care of all of the continuing legal education credits, paid the bills, and answered the phones. “I actually typed up the bylaws,” she recalled.
Over the years, NDA changed, eventually becoming a division within King County’s Department of Public Defense (DPD), and with it, Lou’s role changed too. Today, as a project/program manager at what is now called the Northwest Defenders Division, she oversees the division’s 10 legal assistant specialists, handles payments and supplemental credits, approves supply orders, on-boards and off-boards employees, oversees the case management system, and provides support to the staff. “I do whatever needs to be done to remove barriers,” she said.
The work is intense, she said, and the shift to becoming a part of King County means that some processes take longer. But she is pleased to be a part of the county and continues to feel she belongs in public defense, she said.
“What I enjoy most is seeing the dedication and passion of the employees,” she said. “We have a great staff that works well as a team. Everyone’s main concern is getting our clients served. It’s stressful, but I know we’re all here to make it better for those who are less fortunate.”