Executive Director Roger Wedell, who’s transformed Legal Hospice of Texas since joining agency 13 years ago, will step down at end of 2013
Roger Wedell isn’t sure exactly what he’ll do once he steps down as executive director of Legal Hospice of Texas at the end of this year, but he’s sure he’ll be doing a lot less than he is now.
While AIDS agencies in most cities provide legal services to their clients, LHT is unique in Texas as a stand-alone agency — and rare nationwide. Also distinguishing the organization is that it serves anyone facing terminal illness, including those with cancer, Parkinson’s, ALS or early-onset Alzheimer’s, not just people with an AIDS diagnosis.
Wedell is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Although that denomination voted this summer to embrace its LGBT members, he said when he graduated 40 years ago, he realized being openly gay didn’t leave many opportunities for him as a cleric in Dallas. So he found other outlets for his ministry.
Before joining LHT in 2000, he was director of AIDS Interfaith Network of Tarrant County for seven years and was on staff at AIDS Outreach Center for several years. In the late ’80s, he served as ecumenical director at UT Arlington.
Wedell is a former president of Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance and has been active at Midway Hills Christian Church for years — serving on the board of elders.
LHT board vice chair Greg Hawthorne called him caring, passionate and empathetic.
Former AIDS Arms Executive Director Raeline Nobles agreed.
“To me, Roger is the greatest diplomat of Dallas HIV services,” she said. “When Roger speaks, people step back and listen and re-enter the conversation with a larger perspective of the issue being discussed.”
She said AIDS Arms and LHT were great collaborators over the years.
“Roger put staff on site to provide direct legal services to our clients,” she said.
AIDS Services of Dallas President and CEO Don Maison said he also valued the services LHT provides for his residents and called Wedell a pleasure to work with.
“Legal Hospice to me seems more sound than ever,” Maison said. “Roger had a lot to do with that.”
Hawthorne said replacing Wedell will be a difficult task.
“What impresses me is he is a good administrator, he keeps finances on track and he has a deep, longstanding connection to the gay community,” he said. “People respect us and like the work we do.”
Attorney Rebecca Covell has volunteered with LHT since 1990.
“No one has done it better,” she said.
She said he’s managed the job with compassion, diligence and integrity, which has translated into committed volunteers.
“That passion comes through when he talks to donors,” she said.
Wedell certainly put his mark on LHT. Since taking the helm, the agency has grown to a full-time staff of five including two attorneys — and earlier this year it moved into new, larger offices.
He said Dallas Gay Alliance founded Dallas Legal Hospice in 1989 as a joint venture funded by grants from the Dallas and Texas bar associations. Its office was a closet at the old DGA storefront on Cedar Springs Road. During Wedell’s tenure, the agency changed names because the coverage area expanded from just Dallas to 16 North Texas counties, including Tarrant, Hunt, Johnson and Parker counties. Most other area agencies don’t cross over from Dallas to Fort Worth.
Part of LHT’s funding comes from federal Ryan White grant money, which both Wedell and Hawthorne believe will dry up over the next few years. Hawthorne suggested the agency will be looking for more corporate sponsorship and Wedell said LHT is as reliant on fundraising events as ever.
Wedell cited staging those events as one of the reasons he decided to retire.
“You have to be excited about doing that,” he said. “The spring fashion show attracts people who love a good show and don’t know what we do.”
He said the summer event, a casino and auction called In the Heat of the Night, is also attracting larger crowds than ever and raised a record amount this year. But while he said he’s lost his enthusiasm for planning those events, he’s looking forward to attending as a guest.
Wedell said when LHT began, much of the work was done anonymously.
“We’ve been digitizing old files,” he said. “There’s no identifying information about the clients.”
He said that couldn’t happen now. All work remains confidential, but clients are identified.
While preparing wills has always been an important part of the work of the agency, the focus has shifted.
Originally, many clients came to ask for legal advice about starting a business. What happened frequently was when an employer found out someone was diagnosed with AIDS, that person was fired. So to earn a living, people with AIDS started their own businesses, he explained.
“There were a lot of beauty salons and travel agents,” Wedell said.
The volunteer attorneys took a broad view of their clients’ needs and provided advice because it was all related to the impact the disease had on their lives.
Today, attorneys spend more time producing documents needed — financial and medical powers of attorney, HIPPA releases, appointment of agent for disposition of remains — in addition to wills.
A growing area of the practice is Social Security and disability benefits.
“At one time, an HIV diagnosis meant automatic approval,” Wedell said. “Today it’s routine for Social Security to deny benefits.”
He said the administrative appeals are time consuming, but have become 30 percent of LHT’s case load.
Wedell doesn’t expect the Defense of Marriage Act ruling to have significant impact on his agency in the near future.
“Documents for protection are much easier if a relationship has legal status,” he said.
But since Texas is nowhere near granting legal status to same-sex relationships, Wedell doesn’t see that part of his agency’s work changing in the near future.
He sees teleconferencing opportunities in the future to cut travel time through the large geographic area LHT covers so attorneys can spend that time helping more clients.
Hawthorne said the executive director’s position has already been posted on multiple sites. He said the administrative portion of Wedell’s job could be done by a variety of people, but the community portion will be tough to replicate.
“Those relationships don’t happen overnight,” he said.
But he’s confident they’ll find someone with the same passion who can develop those community relationships.
And he called that passion an important qualification, because without it, a new director would quickly become overwhelmed, overworked and frustrated.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 16, 2013.