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Alumna committed to making a difference in Danbury: Rute Mendes ’99

Rute Mendes ’99 never expected her experience as a Western Connecticut State University undergraduate to play such a pivotal role in her future.  Born in Portugal, and recently named partner at Ventura, Ribeiro & Smith Attorneys at Law, Mendes immigrated to the United States at the age of 9 and has lived in Danbury for the majority of her life. Having successfully gone through the Danbury public school system, there was never a question as to where Mendes would attend college.

“I was the first on my dad’s side to go to college,” Mendes said. “There was a school right in Danbury, so in my dad’s eyes there really was no question about whether I would be going to Western or not.” With a university conveniently in her back yard, Mendes enrolled with the intention of being a computer science major, but due to scheduling conflicts she instead scheduled introductory Justice and Law Administration (JLA) courses. The quality of professors and educational focus of her courses amazed Mendes. “I had such outstanding and well accomplished professors whose passions transcended to the students.”

Though Mendes doesn’t have one defining moment in time when she realized what she wanted to do, she credits her education and experiences at Western, and the order they came in, to becoming an attorney.  “Going through the JLA program, I never knew specifically what I wanted to do,” Mendes said. “I remember, though, taking a trip to New York City with Western for a law school forum, getting a lot of information about the field and realizing this was something I could see myself doing.”

After graduating from Western, Mendes attended New England School of Law in Boston and remained there for an additional two years before coming back to Danbury. With much of her family and roots in the city, Mendes knew this was where she was meant to be. In 2004, Mendes joined Ventura, Ribeiro & Smith as a personal injury attorney. “When I interviewed with the firm, I found this type of law different from what I was used to doing,” Mendes said. “I was impressed with the commitment to helping people in their time of great need.”

The culture of Ventura, Ribeiro & Smith, as established by founding partner Americo S. Ventura,  has always been about giving a voice to those who do not have the resources or ability to do so themselves. As Mendes explained, Mr. Ventura has always been there for the Portuguese community and is more focused on helping someone than figuring out how he would be paid for his service. Furthermore, the company’s multi-lingual fluency has allowed them to expand clientele to non-English speakers.

“I love my job because we really do put people first,” Mendes said. “When we are able to speak with clients [who do not speak English] directly, we are ensuring that serious legal information is not being lost in translation.” Mendes, fluent in Portuguese, English and Spanish, has been able to move past language barriers and assist many in need.   

In 2012, Mendes received the Pro Bono Award from the Danbury Bar Association. “I am a big advocate for victims who need a voice in the criminal justice system, which can often times be very scary,” Mendes said. “Rather than being alone and putting themselves through a second traumatic event [in retelling their accounts], I accompany them to make sure their story is being heard and they understand their legal rights.” Her philosophy in dealing with difficult court cases is to always push forward. “Sometimes I am given cases that are difficult, but I am here to help the family or individual, not dwell on the negative.”

Mendes said that listening is the most important skill in her field. As much as her job is to come to a legal resolution, it is also imperative that she lets her clients speak and tell their stories first, rather than overwhelm them with legal talk.

“What it boils down to is to be a good listener, knowing that no task or story can seem overwhelming or unimportant,” Mendes said.  “When we listen, we are able to process information and find the best way to give an answer in a way people can understand it and know that you are on their side, especially when there isn’t always a positive answer or outcome.” Mendes finds this important not only in her career, but in her volunteer work throughout the Danbury community.

Mendes has spent much of her time working with the Portuguese Cultural Center, the YMCA, and WCSU. Former vice president of the Portuguese Cultural Center, Mendes has helped to expand it to become a community center that welcomes many cultures. She is one of many whose care and willingness to volunteer has kept the center striving. Recently, Mendes was asked to serve on the board of The Regional YMCA of Western Connecticut. “This is something very new to me, but I am ready to experience working in a place with a bigger organizational structure than I am used to and help in any way possible.”

Though Mendes has come a long way from her days at Western, she still remains a proud supporter of her alma mater. Ever since she came back to Danbury from Boston, she has kept in touch with faculty from the JLA department. Mendes has been an adviser and panel judge for Dr. Harold Schramm’s mock trials, as well as a guest speaker in many classes.

“I like going back to tell my story and share how Western really was instrumental in the path that led me to where I am now,” Mendes said. “A lot of times when you’re involved, you don’t realize the significance of your classes, professors or even the school. I like to show students that if you are willing to push forward, you can go far with Western and it can help you get where you want to be.”

Compassion is part of what makes Rute Mendes who she is. Whether she is in the workplace or volunteering, she takes pride in making personal connections and promoting kindness.  For her, it is important never to get so caught up in the day-to-day that we forget where we came from or to do for others within the community.

“Danbury is a diverse city that I don’t think I could ever leave,” Mendes said. “It would be weird to think of living or working in a place where I didn’t have so many connections, the ability to use my language skills or the flexibility to volunteer.”

With an incredible passion for her job, she hopes to continue helping people when they need it most. “I do hope to teach someday at WCSU and be able to make some change in whatever I am connected to,” Mendes said. “If I can continue helping others, practice law and teach part-time, I would consider this to be a successful and fulfilling life.”

Story Photo:  Rute Mendes telling her story and offering advice to JLA department students last Spring

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