Pine Tree Legal Assistance Announces New Director
Pine Tree Legal Assistance chose a Maine-born attorney with extensive experience in justice and equity issues to lead the nonprofit organization that provides civil legal assistance to low-income Mainers.
Tom Fritzsche, who grew up in Kennebunk, will succeed Nan Heald as the association’s executive director. Heald, who died of cancer in January, led Pine Tree for more than 30 years, overseeing the creation of several programs and increasing the nonprofit’s budget by $2.8 million in the early 1990s. to $7 million in 2020.
Over the past year, the nonprofit said it has worked on more than 7,700 cases affecting more than 18,700 people. Their work runs the gamut, with attorneys dealing with issues relating to housing, domestic violence, farm workers, veterans and Indigenous peoples.
When Fritzsche takes over on Sept. 6, he will oversee a team of 75 people, including 47 attorneys and 15 paralegals, at six locations across the state.
“I’m proud to bring a wide range of experiences, working with all of the different communities Pine Tree serves,” Fritzsche said Thursday afternoon.
Currently, Fritzsche is the executive director of Milk with Dignity Standards Counsel, a Vermont-based nonprofit that works to improve housing and working conditions for dairy farm workers. He is a graduate of Amherst College and NYU School of Law.
In an interview Thursday, Fritzsche said his interest in legal aid dates back to the early 2000s, when he was a medical interpreter, pesticide safety trainer and outreach worker for the Maine Migrant Health Program. Fritzsche said he spent his summers traveling from farm to farm, helping translate interactions between medical professionals and Spanish-speaking farm workers who needed care. The experience offered Fritzsche one of his first looks at the needs of Maine’s vulnerable communities.
His first job after law school was as an attorney for the Immigrant Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Atlanta. Fritzsche was also a lecturer at the Immigration Justice Clinic at the Cardozo School of Law in New York.
“He has a lot of experience in many areas,” said Dan Emery, chairman of the board of directors who oversees Pine Tree Legal Assistance. Emery noted Fritzsche’s “enormous” work to secure human rights and improve conditions for farmworkers, but also his “broad” experience working with the kinds of clients who most need the help of farm workers. Pine tree.
“He really dedicated his life to working with disadvantaged, low-income people,” Emery said.
Pine Tree Legal Assistance was founded in the late 1960s when it was one of the first statewide civil legal aid organizations.
Heald took over Pine Tree in 1990 after working there for about five years to correct the exclusion of the Aroostook Band of Mi’kmaq from the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980, a change that was ultimately achieved by the through federal legislation. The Smith College and George Washington University graduate grew up in Oquossoc in the mountains of western Maine.
As executive director, Heald ushered the organization into the age of technology by helping create a website that featured self-help resources in 1996 – the first online self-help guides produced by a legal aid organization in the country.
Heald saw the creation of several new legal aid programs, including those for children, low-income veterans, and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.
Heald was honored in 2011 at the White House as a “champion of change” for her work on justice issues. In a 2017 op-ed for the Press Herald during the nonprofit’s 50th anniversary, Heald advocated for increased funding and support for legal aid organizations statewide.
“When we say the Pledge of Allegiance, we end with ‘justice for all,'” Heald wrote in the co-authored piece. “We need civil legal aid programs like Pine Tree Legal Assistance to ensure Maine gets justice for everyone, not just those who can afford it.”
Review: Opera Maine captures the mystery and menace of Poe with music