Trilingual lawyer wins local honor

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Trilingual lawyer wins local honor
By DAVID L. SHAW / dshaw@fltimes.com
Wednesday, March 18, 2009 10:07 AM CDT

GENEVA 9 4 Michael Bersani is not only a lawyer.

He’s fluent in Spanish and French and committed to community and human service.

For that, he’s been selected as “Citizen of the Year” by the Geneva Area Chamber of Commerce.

The award has been given for the past 44 years to an individual or couple the Chamber considers to have “unselfishly given to the community and created a more dignified, unique place in which we all work and live.”

“I’m very surprised and honored,” Bersani said this morning. “I feel there are a lot of people ahead of me who have done more than I.”

Chamber Executive Director Rob Gladden said immigrants “simply show up at [Bersani’s] doorstep, having heard that a Spanish-speaking lawyer who provides free help lives there.”

He has helped them buy or rent homes or apartments, apply for grants, complete immigration forms, attend to traffic and parking tickets and get workers compensation benefits, all at no cost.

Gladden said Bersani has made many visits to the Batavia immigration detention center, without charge, to help those detained on immigration violations.

“No immigrant that he can help is ever turned away,” Gladden said.

For several years, he and Molina gave Hispanic immigrants free English classes on Saturday mornings at the Family Resource Center in Geneva.

For the past several winters, he has coordinated a coat drive, generating 500 and 1,000 coats for distribution, mostly to the farm workers who come from Mexico and Guatemala.

Bersani is first vice chairman of the Boys & Girls Club of Geneva board of directors; president of the Auburn YMCA board, on which he has served since 1998; and a member of the board of Farm Workers Legal Services of New York, providing free legal services to underserved agricultural workers since 1998.

He is the former chairman of the Geneva Human Rights Commission and has served on the boards of St. Peter’s Community Arts Academy and the Child Care Council of the Finger Lakes, where he continues to provide free legal advice.

As a member of the Boys and Girls Club board, Bersani organizes a regular ice skating activity for club members and personally takes the group to the rink most Friday evenings in the winter.

He also organizes a regular swimming activity for club members at the YMCA.

Bersani said his philosophy of community service is to involve his family as much as possible, which has included working with his wife on immigrant assistance and taking their sons, now ages 10 and 12, to English language classes for immigrants.

“They would play with children and learned Spanish at an early age. The same with the Boys and Girls Clubs. I saw a lot of our son’s friend at the club didn’t have transportation to the ice rink or YMCA, so we said, ‘why not take them with us?’” Bersani said.