When Melissa Wong stepped into Law School in California about a decade ago, she envisioned herself working in a private or government firm, never for a non-profit.
But that didn’t happen. After graduation, she found herself back in Hawaii and without a clue which path to take. A friend suggested applying at Legal Aid. It was an easy decision for Melissa, having interned here as a Summer Law Clerk.
“What I do is very rewarding and meaningful. I’m glad I followed my friend’s suggestion. I’m grateful that God had a different path for me,” shares Melissa, now the Senior Staff Attorney in the Public Benefits Department at Legal Aid.
“I know that every day I come to work I can have a big impact and make a difference in someone’s life.”
That someone could be a jobless father, a food-insecure mother, an abused child, a financially strapped kupuna, or a homeless family.
Thousands of people seek Legal Aid’s services every year. Melissa directly supports families get back on their feet and those who face barriers to obtaining the social service benefits they need to help themselves.
It has been five years since she started; Melissa’s passion to help has not wavered. She is a staunch advocate for education, constantly encouraging her clients to be pro-active.
“I try to empower them that they could make a difference especially if they experienced injustice,” says Melissa. “They have a powerful voice.”
One client that stands out is a woman who has been claiming social security benefits since 2017. Her physical and mental a disability would certainly qualify her for social security, but she kept getting denied. Melissa stayed with her, appeal after appeal, until they were granted a hearing. In July this year, after four years, the woman finally got approved.
“We both cried when we found out,” says Melissa.
This September, Melissa won another appeal for a client whose GA benefits were terminated by the Department of Human Services. DHS had refused to qualify her based on her physical or mental disability. Melissa strongly argued for the case, and they won.
With these success stories, and many more, Melissa admits she couldn’t see herself working anywhere else. She loves her work and the clients that she serves.
“When I come home after a day’s work, I feel satisfied. There’s a special satisfaction you feel knowing that you helped someone.”
The spam musubi Shannon Clark receives from a friend who owns a Japanese grocery store is one of the highlights of her day. She would eat all three at once, licking her fingers with a satisfied smile.
Eating spam musubi shouldn’t be that unusual except Shannon lives in Chicago where it’s almost a delicacy. So when Shannon eats, she eats with gusto, satisfying her taste buds and nostalgia.
“I love Chicago, but Hawaii is where my loyalty and heart remain,” says Shannon, a Hawaii-born wahine who found her niche in the city as a data privacy lawyer. “My family has been in Hawaii for a long time. Hawaii always feels like home.”
Shannon donating to Legal Aid Society was like eating spam musubi – it satisfied her passion to help the less advantaged and brought back memories of the summer of 1994 when she interned as a law clerk while a student at the Indiana University School of Law.
“Having worked with Legal Aid, I have confidence in their mission,” says Shannon. “I have a lot of respect for the staff because what they do takes a lot of commitment. The people I worked with were dedicated and good at what they were doing."
With the immersive clerkship, Shannon gained valuable experience learning from lawyer mentors and paralegals, going to court, dealing with the practical aspect of client needs, and developing her research skills. Of course, she was also happy to be back in Hawaii with family and friends.
“I see a big need especially because of COVID and so many people being out of work,” she says about the current pandemic. “One of the experiences I had when I worked with Legal Aid was the work with housing and Social Security benefits. And because COVID has unfortunately shifted the imbalance a little more, there would be an even more pressing need.”
Shannon meets this need by donating to different charities every year, especially choosing to support organizations that provide legal services to the underserved.
“Every little bit helps. And collectively, we can make a difference.”
Many families need legal services and do not have the financial means to access justice. Join Shannon and the rest of us in helping them recover from the effects of the pandemic.