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Anita Santos-Singh, the founding executive director of Philadelphia Legal Assistance died from ovarian cancer on Saturday, Jan. 13. Photo: Philadelphia Legal Assistance
Anita Santos-Singh, the founding executive director of Philadelphia Legal Assistance died from ovarian cancer on Saturday, Jan. 13. Photo: Philadelphia Legal Assistance

The Passing of Anita Santos-Singh

Founding Executive Director of Philadelphia Legal Assistance and legal services advocate for 34 years, passed away at the age of 59.

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Anita Santos-Singh, a legal services advocate with a remarkable 34-year career, passed away last week from ovarian cancer at the age of 59. She was a shining star in the Philadelphia legal community, dedicated to providing crucial legal assistance to low-income and vulnerable individuals in the city.

Originally hailing from Brownsville, Texas, Anita ventured to Philadelphia in 1982 as an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. She crossed paths with a young Pedro A. Ramos, current President, and CEO of the Philadelphia Foundation. Ramos recalled their first meeting as part of a Latino students' group during freshman orientation. He described Anita as a guiding light who helped newcomers adapt to their new environment, a role she embraced throughout her life.

During her years at Penn, Anita interned at Community Legal Services (CLS), sparking her passion for civil legal aid work. She recognized that a single legal problem could lead to a cascade of difficulties for those less fortunate, motivating her to make a difference. After completing her legal education at the University of Michigan Law School, she returned to the City of Brotherly Love. There, she committed herself to using her legal expertise and leadership skills to support those who were least able to afford legal representation.

Anita embarked on her legal journey as a housing attorney at Community Legal Services in 1989. Her early work involved protecting homeowners facing the dire prospect of mortgage foreclosure and potential loss of their homes. Her exceptional dedication and talent didn't go unnoticed, and at the young age of 32, she was chosen to be the founding Executive Director of Philadelphia Legal Assistance in 1996. This organization was established to serve Philadelphia's impoverished population with federal funding.

Over the span of more than two decades, Anita played a pivotal role in molding Philadelphia Legal Assistance into an organization at the forefront of addressing racial and income disparities, safeguarding the rights of individuals and families, and striving for significant community impact. She possessed an unwavering commitment and brought a wealth of qualities to her daily work, including determination, vision, wisdom, and inclusivity. Anita was never content with the status quo; she continually sought opportunities to expand the reach and services of PLA.

Anita's leadership during the 2008 recession was a testament to her dedication. She launched the Save Your Home Philly Hotline to assist homeowners in the midst of losing their residences. She responded again in 2021 by staffing the Eviction Diversion Program Tenant Hotline, offering a vital safety net to tenants facing eviction. She also spearheaded the creation of the successful Medical Legal Community Partnership, embedding attorneys in public health centers to provide legal aid where Philadelphians receive medical care. Under her guidance, PLA extended support to migrant farmworkers, collaborated with pro bono assistance for consumer bankruptcies, and established Philadelphia's inaugural low-income tax clinic.

Anita's outstanding service was recognized by numerous law, justice, and service organizations, including awards from the Philadelphia Bar Association, SEAMAAC, and the Hispanic Bar Association of Pennsylvania. She served on various committees and task forces, demonstrating her unwavering commitment to ensuring access to justice for all.

In the words of Maureen Olives, Interim Executive Director of PLA, Anita will be remembered as a collaborative and dynamic leader who nurtured and guided a team of dedicated professionals, fostering a culture of hard work, humility, and humor.

John Lavelle, PLA Board president, summarized Anita's impact on Philadelphia's legal aid community, acknowledging that tens of thousands of Philadelphians received essential legal assistance thanks to her incredible leadership.

Beyond her professional achievements, Anita was a woman of many passions. She loved live music, traveling, knitting, and admired Rafael Nadal. Her laughter, love for dancing, and appreciation for good food were infectious. She was a thoughtful, kind, inquisitive, and loving individual who served as a role model, mentor, coach, and innovator to those fortunate enough to know her. Anita Santos-Singh's legacy will continue to inspire and uplift the legal community and beyond for generations to come.

A funeral service is being planned in her hometown of Brownsville, Texas, with a memorial service to follow in Philadelphia. Donations in her honor can be made to PLA at philalegal.org/donate.

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