Why this couple's wedding registry was devoted to paying off Philly kids' court costs

Fifty dollars doesn’t seem like a lot of money — unless you don’t have it.

Pratyusha Yalamanchi didn’t fully process what that meant until she began working at the Penn Center for Community Health Workers a few years ago as a medical student at University of Pennsylvania, where her then-fiance, Elston He, is a law and business student.

“I kept seeing patients who had $50 or $60 medical co-pays that they had loans on, and it wasn’t clear if they were paying interest or ever paying down the principal on these very small amounts,” she said. “Similarly, my husband in the legal system saw people with court fines and fees that are less than $500, but are very significant barriers to people trying to transition out of the justice system.”

They’d hit upon a problem that a simple charitable donation could not solve. After all, it’s not a legal service provider’s job to pay court fees, or up to the doctor to cover a co-pay.

To Yalamanchi and He, fixing the systems that created these traps seemed a monumental challenge. But, taken individually, these were problems they could solve. So, they launched the Shift Fund, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that provides small — but hopefully life-changing — grants to people who are just a few hundred dollars away from getting their lives on track.

According to the Federal Reserve’s 2017 Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households report, four in 10 Americans could not come up with $400 in case of an emergency. More than one-fifth of adults were unable to pay their bills in full each month, and one-quarter skipped needed medical care because they could not afford it.

The couple,  both 27, put up $5,000 of their own money to start the fund, and got a corporate donor to match that. Then, when they got married last year, instead of creating a wedding registry, they asked for donations — and raised $20,000. Other contributions have come from friends and strangers looking for a way that their small donations can have a tangible impact.

“Our first case was $57 for a teen in West Philadelphia who was present in a car during an armed robbery,” Yalamanchi said. “He was 14 years old at the time, and wasn’t involved in the robbery, but he spent six months behind bars before his case came to trial, and he wasn’t able to pay his fines and fees. He had to go to a probation officer and miss school for that.”

With that $57 donation, he was able to finally end his probation and move on with his life. He’s now back in high school in West Philadelphia, where he’s a standout athlete.

Although Yalamanchi is now doing her residency in Ann Arbor, Mich. — her husband visits from Philly on weekends — the couple continue to coordinate donations with local service providers like Community Legal Services and the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project (YSRP). They’ve covered filing fees for people seeking expungements so they can find work, court costs for teens trying to extract themselves from the juvenile justice system, and a birth certificate for a single mother and domestic-violence survivor who was then able to apply for benefits.

YSRP’s Lauren Fine said it’s been a relief to be able to offer some solution to kids and parents dealing with court costs.

“There are a lot of costs and fees that get assessed in any interaction with the criminal justice system, and when we’re talking about a young person who, by virtue of their age or other circumstances, does not have a job or access to income, it can be really difficult,” she said. “For us, having a resource like the Shift Fund is pivotal to helping young people move forward and get beyond the system.”

This work has been slow going, though. So far, the fund has made about 10 donations.

“It can be more difficult than we thought to actually get the money to people that need it. We’ll get potential cases and then we’ll learn that a client has an unstable housing situation and hasn’t been able to come back in, or they haven’t put minutes on their phone plan so they can’t get back in touch,” Yalamanchi said.

As well, she acknowledges that the micro grants are a Band-Aid, not a cure.

“We’re essentially funding the system that’s making it harder for people to move ahead in life,” she said. “That’s why we’ve partnered with organizations like the Civil Rights Corps, which is a policy organization. Raising awareness of what those barriers look like is important to creating change on the policy level — but before policy changes, a lot of people’s lives are being affected in the mix.”

One teen, who declined to be named, was able to use a $152 grant from the fund to pay off the remainder of his juvenile court costs, a key step that he expects will enable him to terminate juvenile probation later this month for an armed robbery charge.

With that, the 18-year-old, who found work as a dishwasher, will no longer have a curfew. That means he’ll be able to take more night shifts at work, and even go back to school.

“If he couldn’t pay it, I would have to pay it,” the teen’s mother said. “That wasn’t going to happen.”

Philadelphia Media Network is one of 19 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. Read more at: brokeinphilly.org or follow @BrokeInPhilly