Hundreds of people who couldn’t afford legal advice for landlord -tenant issues, divorces and situations involving domestic violence owe a debt of thanks to Yakima County Volunteer Attorney Services.

And a number of them have shown their gratitude by helping vote the organization the Best Nonprofit in this year’s Yakima Herald-Republic Readers’ Choice Awards. With more than 35,000 votes cast in this year’s awards, VAS finished first in the nonprofit category.

It’s the first time the 20-year-old nonprofit has won the honor.

“Honestly, I was shocked,” said Quinn Dalan, VAS’s executive director for the past two years. “We’re like the little engine that could.”

But that little engine (Dalan shares a tiny suite in the Larson Building with just two full-timers: Bilingual Outreach Coordinator Jessica Martinez and Pro Bono Program Coordinator Nancy Marnin) pulled more than its share as the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in 2020. With suddenly unemployed tenants facing evictions and women fleeing dangerous homes as domestic violence flared, VAS’s 84 volunteer attorneys offered individual counsel to 351 clients last year.

Speaking from behind her black “Justice for All” facemask, Dalan acknowledged that recent months have presented some challenging problems.

The surge of people seeking assistance with housing, for instance, prompted VAS to expand its services and offer more specialized help through its Housing Justice Project.

And in past years, attorneys from her organization staged live workshops that could offer general advice to groups of people facing common legal questions. With COVID restrictions, those presentations were no longer possible.

The question, Dalan said, became “How do we pivot and meet people where they are?” The answer has meant shifting the presentations to Facebook Live and YouTube, forcing Dalan and her staff to quickly learn and apply new technical skills.

It’s also meant office phones constantly ringing with calls for help.

Dalan, Martinez and Marnin have taken it all in stride.

“Our goal,” Dalan said, “is to make sure that anyone can get into that courthouse and get justice.”

A big part of meeting that expectation involves making sure the public knows about VAS and understands what kind of help they do — and don’t — offer. (VAS handles only civil matters, not criminal or immigration cases.)

Despite the number of votes her office got in the Readers’ Choice Awards, Dalan is surprised at how many clients still find her through basic Google searches. So she’s working to strengthen the nonprofit’s search engine optimization, hoping to be even more accessible.

Looking back on 2020, would she call it a tough year?

“Yeah,” she said, laughing, “but I come from the public defense world.”

“It’s been good. I like to meet needs,” Dalan said.

“I love what I do.”