By Todd Erzen
Feb. 25, 2013 Des Moines Register
*Note: Justin Gross is a member on the board of the North of Grand Neighborhood Association.
A strong sense of “do unto others” has long permeated the life of Justin Gross.
His father was a Catholic school religion teacher, then principal. It was a robust example that turned up the volume even more in sixth grade, when Gross and his two siblings followed dad’s transfer to Des Moines’ diversity-rich but poverty-stricken Holy Family School.
A whole new pair of ears to hear and eyes to see were bestowed on the young man seemingly destined to one day work for Iowa Legal Aid, which bills itself as providing “critical legal assistance to low-income and vulnerable Iowans who have nowhere else to turn.”
“White was the minority at Holy Family,” recalled Gross, now 35. “You could see a lot of kids were barely making it. It broadened my view. I could see there was definitely poverty in Des Moines. It’s easy to turn a blind eye to that. There is a majority of the population that does. I just had this constant feeling of wanting to help people with the talents that I had.”
That self-professed “calling” took Gross from Dowling Catholic High School to the University of Northern Iowa to pursue a double major in social work and Spanish. The latter degree started as a bit of a lark in order to fit an exotic semester studying in Mexico onto his college itinerary. Little did Gross know how a second language would impact every job he had going forward.
Sounds like it all was really meant to be, said Jesus Soto, executive director of the Iowa non-profit Proteus, which offers job training programs and a mobile health clinic for migrant and seasonal farm workers. Gross currently serves on that organization’s board of directors as chairman.
“I see so many people in so many situations where you see that they have a calling but they have to figure out how to pay the bills doing something else,” Soto said. “Justin gets to do his calling for a living. There will always be people in this world who are the most vulnerable and who could be taken advantage of, and Justin sees himself as an advocate for them.”
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Gross got his start as a bilingual case manager for the Des Moines school district’s SUCCESS program, serving as a primary conduit between the district and at-risk Hispanic children and families.
His greatest social justice crusade during his 31/2 years on the job happened in 2003 and involved the sudden closing of a mobile home park on Des Moines’ south side. About 80 families were given little more than a month to move out in the middle of winter, but Gross’ media outreach and steadfastness struck gold when he helped many of those families stay until summer.
“It was a proud moment,” Gross said. “It was a community grassroots effort that paid off.”
It was also the kind of victory that got Gross thinking about how best to maximize the reach and impact of his calling. A first attempt at getting into law school at Drake University struck out, but his Spanish skills once again served him well by helping him secure work as a case manager specializing in immigration issues for Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin.
Gross likely would have remained there indefinitely had a second try to get into Drake law school a year later fizzled out in waiting-list limbo. But if a calling is truly to be worthy of the name, it has to have a few small miracles up its sleeve.
The day classes were to begin in the fall of 2005, Gross went from “time to move on with my life” to “this textbook costs how much?” with a single phone call: Someone hadn’t shown up to take their seat at Drake and a spot was suddenly open.
Gross ultimately found his way into an internship with Iowa Legal Aid as an advocate for migrant and seasonal farm workers. Gross also started a formal chapter of Equal Justice Works at Drake, which promotes pro bono legal work, and was awarded a public service scholarship by the university for his last two years of school.
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The most head-turning endeavor Gross undertook in law school, though, had nothing to do with jurisprudence.
He and a long-time friend opened up a pizza restaurant. Frank’s Pizza had a good run in the Drake neighborhood before transforming into what is now Gusto Pizza just north of downtown on Ingersoll Avenue. Gross is no longer involved in that operation but he said his time in the business was an opportunity he couldn’t turn down, law school or not.
“It was like getting an MBA,” Gross said.
Tony Lemmo, who owns Gusto as well as Cafe Di Scala in Sherman Hill, went to Dowling and UNI with Gross, whom he called “a man of very sound reason and a very loyal friend.”
“Justin has always been more of a giver than a taker,” Lemmo said. “If you need an extra buck he’s going to give you $10. It’s in his DNA.”
Gross’ pizza dreams finally gave way to the demands of the law and family. He took his full-time job at Iowa Legal Aid in 2008 upon graduation from law school and two sons, now ages 3 and 18 months, followed thereafter with wife, Emily.
Gross is now one of 58 Iowa Legal Aid attorneys working across the state of Iowa, but that number is 20 less than it was four years ago when the state and federal funding that supports the non-profit began drying up.
Still, Iowa Legal Aid handled almost 20,000 cases for Iowans in 2012 while representing about 47,000 people — 20,000 of whom were children. Bringing justice and hope to those lives is Gross’ charge, which according to one of his former law school professors is as good a fit as can be imagined.
“It’s his authenticity, he really does care,” said Russ Lovell. “I’ve known him since 8th grade because my son is the same age. He was always a good competitor but he always had the kindest smile on his face. That’s still the Justin Gross I know today. He’s very generous, and now he’s got the legal skill set to help people through their problems.”