I grew up in a city very much like Honolulu, in a seaside town called Qingdao in China. I had no idea about the United States back then.
I worked as a biology teacher when I was in China, met my then husband, and we had a son. My son was about 4 years-old when his father got an opportunity to advance his education in Hawai`i. Of course, we followed him!
The move to Hawai`i gave me opportunities as well. I enrolled at the University of Hawai`i and studied epidemiology with an emphasis in statistics, graduating with my Master’s degree. It allowed me to work in the health industry for many years – it built on my teaching days in China.
I had thought about becoming a United States citizen when I first arrived, and even tried to start the process a couple of years ago. It was very difficult for me to understand the paperwork because my first language is Mandarin. In my first attempt, I didn’t really have anyone helping me and I gave up. Then I heard about the Legal Aid Society of Hawai`i and met with a staff attorney!
The people at Legal Aid helped so much. They are such wonderful professionals, very knowledgeable with details and the process. Without Legal Aid’s help, I would not have been able to become a U.S. citizen.
Now that I am a citizen, I am applying for new employment opportunities – positions that will help even more, and also build the future that I want. I do think that my professional background in health can help our community, especially given what we are going through today. Thank you to Legal Aid for helping me get here!
The Legal Aid Society of Hawaii helped make strides for my son, Jason, to be included in his first field trip with his non-disabled peers.
After years of long battles with the Department of Education, this year, Jason was allowed to participate in an overnight statewide student conference, complete with behavior support and accommodations because of his disability. He was the school’s first student representative who had disabilities and a special education IEP.
Jason learned to advocate at the Legislature alongside all students.
Before I came to Legal Aid, the school asked me to arrange for and pay extra for separate accommodations, to be present for the 2-night stay, and to transport my son to and from the Capitol, not required of other parents. The school would provide a behavior support technician, but only during regular school hours. Jason would not be able to participate fully.
I believed this was unfair and I could not pay more than the regular conference fee. To make inclusion possible this time, I needed an advocate.
The Legal Aid Society of Hawaii’s Whole Child Project came through!
Their staff attorney taught me how Sec. 504 is a law that guarantees a student equal access to extracurricular activities. I learned to write an effective letter explaining how imposing the requirements due to my son's disability would deny my son equal access to participate.
A separate special education was not enough for my son. He wanted to be included, too.
I encourage parents of students with disabilities to ask the school and district staff for -- and expect -- their children to be included in field trips and extracurricular activities with the supports they may need. When your student is denied, this legal battle for inclusion can be won.
I would like parents and others to know the breakthrough that the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii made for all students to have equal access and to be included.
- Linda Elento, mother of Jason Elento
I was literally homeless, living out of a car in Waimanalo with my four-month old son when the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii came into my life. It was rough. There were times I broke down because I couldn’t provide for him. We would drive to Hawaii Kai to shower and bathe -- I felt like it was the safest place for us.
My attorney, Dana, from Legal Aid’s Whole Child Project, helped me to get my son’s birth certificate and other paperwork so I could get into housing. I thought that when my son was born, I would get his birth certificate for free. I couldn’t even afford to pay for it. Getting all that paperwork taken care of helped me and my son to get off the streets.
Today, I am enrolled in Windward Community College and have a goal to further my education to become a medical coder. I also just got a job and my son was accepted into a daycare. Legal Aid helped me to create a new life, a better life for my son. During those hard times, I remember looking at my son and telling myself, “It’s not about me anymore. I want him to be in a better position than me. I want him to know that if I can do it, he can do it."
If it wasn’t for Legal Aid, I would still be on the streets. I went from having nothing, to now building my life, my goals, and my dreams. I didn’t plan to be on the streets, but that’s what happened in my life. Thankfully, Legal Aid stepped up and showed me the first step I needed to take so I could finally climb out.
Growing up on the Big Island as a little girl, I saw my parents’ abusive relationship unravel into a horrible divorce and was dragged through the process. Later in high school, I found myself stuck in an abusive relationship of my own. It was a really bad time. My then boyfriend had held me down one day, shoved a gun down my throat, and told me that he would kill me. Later while I was driving in the car, he punched my face over and over, breaking five bones. When I finally got to my mom’s house, she could not even recognize me because of the purple bruises all over my face.
After building up the courage to call the police and go through the court process, I felt that the system failed me. He got 6 months in jail and was charged with a misdemeanor. I was still afraid for my life when he got out. I felt like nobody really cared during the legal process. I started struggling with alcohol to dull my feelings and pain, becoming a “high-functioning” alcoholic. I maintained a job, had my kids, but it was becoming a serious problem that was jeopardizing my entire life. I realized I could not keep living this cycle.
Getting sober did so much for me. It allowed me to feel my emotions and not mask it with anger or alcohol. It ultimately allowed me to forgive him, so that I could forgive myself. I have been sober for 8 years.
Those experiences shaped my desire to become a lawyer.
As a single mom of two, I earned my Bachelors degree after getting sober and my JD from Vermont Law School. I worked as a public defender in New Mexico and really poured my heart and soul into the job. I knew I wanted to come back home to Hawai`i and give back to my community. I love the work I do with the Legal Aid Society of Hawai`i because I know that I am serving the interest of the most vulnerable of our society through education and zealous advocacy.
We have the ability as attorneys to step in and say, “Yes, we can help you.” Our work can become deeply personal, so I am also open about my personal story if it will help people feel comfortable. I really do understand what it is like to be afraid, to feel helpless, embarrassed, and angry about everything. I let them know that I am human, too.
Today, I am good with who I am. The bruises have healed, the bones have healed, and I am grateful to be in a position where I can truly help others. It’s like that day when I was walking on stage to get my diploma, looking at my two kids, I felt like I had finally “made it.” I want help others to make it, too.
Managing Attorney, Kona Office
I choose to give to the Legal Aid Society of Hawai’i because while I do not reside in Hawai’i, Hawai’i resides in my heart.
For the past 20 years my family and I have been blessed with the ability to spend more and more time in Hawai’i. The beauty of the land and people have made us feel welcome and at home. We consider Hawai’i the place we most want to be whenever time and pandemics allow. We hope to spend even more time in Hawai’i in the future, so much so that I even became a member of the Hawai’i Bar.
I have been in-house Counsel for a Fortune 50 Company for 20 years and I was an attorney at large law firms before that. I love what I do but I also realize that the large companies I help are not the only ones in our communities in need of legal services. Whether we think about it or not, the law touches almost every aspect of our daily lives. Unfortunately, and particularly through difficult times such as we are living now, the people who would benefit the most directly from legal advice are often the ones who have the least access.
I am grateful that organizations such as the Legal Aid Society of Hawai’i exist to provide support to a community that I want to see thrive. I want to say thank you to the Staff and Professionals who work with the Legal Aid Society of Hawai’i for the important work you do in providing access to legal services to those in our communities who are underserved and for giving the rest of us a way to be helpful.
Mahalo Nui Loa
Adriana I. Reyes-Villanueva
Isabel sought to establish guardianship over her daughter, who suffers from Down's Syndrome and is about to turn 18.
The Legal Aid Society of Hawaii prepared and filed all the necessary court documents, and advised Isabel about how to represent herself. Upon closing her case, Legal Aid provided referrals to social service agencies such as Kokua Villa, which offers day care for developmentally disabled adults.
Cheyenne is a single mother of 2 children. She was served with a paternity petition by the father of her older child asking that he have full physical and legal custody, and that she have no visitation.
Worried about losing her child, Cheyenne contacted Legal Aid. Legal Aid filed a declaration explaining her side of the story to the judge, and was prepared to represent Cheyenne in court. Fortunately, Legal Aid was able to negotiate a settlement, which granted Cheyenne full physical and legal custody, and visitation for the father.
Both parents were relieved about avoiding a custody battle, and happy to achieve a mutually agreed upon settlement.
Supplemental Security Income (SSI) assessed an overpayment against a young mother and her 3 year old daughter who was born with Down syndrome. With the help of Paula Boyer from the Kona Legal Aid office, the case went to a hearing before a judge and the mother was issued a fully favorable decision. The entire overpayment was waived as the judge considered the mistake wasn't their fault and reinstated the daughter's full SSI.
"Before I came to Legal Aid I didn't really know what to do about our situation. I tried writing a letter to the SSI office asking for an appeal but other than doing that I didn't know what my options were or who to talk to who could help.
Legal Aid helped me file all the necessary paperwork and gather all the proper documentation that was needed for my case.
With Legal Aid's help I was able to go to court and submit my case to the judge. He looked at all the evidence and ruled in our favor!
What I want people to know about a legal aid is that they are a group that is there to help. Especially when legal representation can be so costly, they provided the representation that we so desperately needed. Our Legal Aid representative, Paula Boyer, was caring and knowledgeable. Even though I know she had many cases and people to represent, I always felt like we were the number one priority when we were in her office. I am so thankful for the help we received through the Legal Aid Society!"