My daughter, Jerelynn, passed away from medical complications about two years ago. She was only 29 years-old, fighting for her life at the hospital, when my husband and our granddaughter, Tamia, saw her for the last time. Tamia was only 4 years-old and she saw everything – the doctors trying to revive her mother. It was horrible.
We were worried about what would happen to Tamia. I was in prayer all the time and could not eat, sleep, or think, because I was so afraid that someone was going to come and get the baby. I had a family friend who suggested that I call the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii to ask about guardianship and adoption for Tamia.
I was so relieved when I met Mr. Russ, our Legal Aid attorney, for the first time. He was patient, honest, and knowledgeable. He told us straight that this would be a long process because of some of the issues we were facing, and he really helped us to understand how the court system worked. If it weren’t for Legal Aid, there’s no way we could have afforded to hire an attorney to adopt Tamia.
Tamia is doing much better today. She is not crying anymore. When we visit her mother’s grave on Sundays after church, Tamia plans what kind of flowers she wants to bring and looks forward to packing a suitcase of things to show her mom. She loves to draw and writes little notes for her mom, too.
We do our best to continue what Jerelynn wanted for Tamia. Education was important to Jerelynn and she enrolled Tamia at Kamehameha Schools for preschool. Tamia is now in kindergarten and loves school. Jerelynn was such a hard-working, loving, and caring single mother. We want to do exactly what she did for her baby. It’s that memory of her that keeps us going.
I want people to know that Legal Aid gave us a chance and fought for us, they felt our pain and walked this journey with us. They’re for real, down to earth, knowledgeable people, who helped us to keep our family together when everything felt like it was falling apart.
- Tammy Lee Pii
Where are you from? Educational background? I grew up in the Texas Hill Country and moved to Hawaii in 2016. This Fall I will graduate from The University of Hawaii, West Oahu with a degree in Business Marketing + Management and will continue my education on the mainland in pursuit of a Juris Doctorate.
What got you interested in volunteering for the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii? My desire to ensure our community has access to legal resources and adequate representation for individuals who are underrepresented or marginalized. I hope to continue this work once I become an attorney.
Can you share a bit about what you’ll be working on (i.e. projects, efforts, duties?) I will intern at Honolulu’s Access to Justice Room and Self-Help Centers on Maui and Kauai, providing client intake for individuals seeking assistance from our volunteer attorneys.
Who do you admire most in the world? My husband. He is smart, driven, and selfless. As a Respiratory Therapist for the Army, he is currently deployed in Southern California, working with COVID patients at a local hospital.
What’s on your bucket list? Visiting the Maldives! Visiting La Casa Azul in Mexico City, childhood home of artist Frida Kahlo that is now a museum exhibiting her original work.
What are some of your hobbies, passions, interests? I love painting using mixed media, paddle boarding around the island, watching true-crime documentaries, and baking with my kids. I’m passionate about social justice, advocating for victims of domestic violence, and mental health.
You have an entire day off – how would you spend it?
I'd spend the morning on the Kaneohe sandbar with my husband and our twins. Followed by an evening-in, with dinner on the lanai.
I know what it’s like to feel really helpless. My husband died four years ago and he left me in a really bad situation. I am so blessed to live in Kona in a government subsidized community apartment complex, but before I got here, I lived in a homeless shelter for two years and with a friend of mine for three years.
After my husband passed away I learned that he had opened multiple credit cards in my name. All of a sudden, I got all these bills for $7,000, $10,000, $3,000… and they kept coming. I couldn't believe it.
I just wanted to have peace.
People were coming after me for these bills and I felt so down. When you are down at your feet, you have to kiss the ground. I had nowhere to go and when I finally looked up, a friend of mine said there’s the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii.
The attorney and other people I met at the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii’s Kona office were absolutely wonderful. They were such a blessing.
It gave me so much hope to hear them say to me, “Just hold on, we are doing everything we can for you”.
I am so eternally grateful to Legal Aid for the peace they brought into my life. We all could use a little bit of help and love. Life can be so tough on us and it can end so quickly. I treasure what I have today because I know we only live once. I encourage others who need help to reach out to Legal Aid.
- Margrit M.
My name is Lorenza Sonis and I am known as Cinder Sonis in my COFA community. I have been with the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii for 5 years and work as an Outreach Specialist where I primarily help clients with applying for medical insurance and intake those who need services that LASH provides.
One of my most memorable experiences working with Legal Aid is when I would do hospital bedside outreach, helping sick and dying people who could only speak in Chuukese. These people relied on me to help them with applying for medical insurance and their documentation.
What I love most about this work is connecting and reconnecting to families, friends, and others. I enjoy meeting and helping other people.
The most challenging part of my work is saying NO to the great demand that my community needs from me. My work requires more than just me -- I always say, "I wish I were an octopus who has 8 tentacles to work with." I wish I could further my reach.
LASH is a place where our staff work tirelessly to help ensure that the community has access to services, justice, and fairness.
Although my community faces racism, I am not embarrassed to say that I am Chuukese. I love helping my community as well as other people, and have a respect for my host island (Hawaii). It is my culture that makes me who I am, with a big heart in helping others and I love the aloha spirit that my host island of Hawaii has. My culture places responsibility on my shoulders as the eldest girl in the family, to take care of the immediate family as well as the extended family with respect for all.
- Cinder Sonis, Outreach Specialist
The Legal Aid Society of Hawaii represented me through the process of obtaining custody of my son many years ago. I remember speaking to the person on the intake line, and she was so kind and patient… she listened to my story and referred me to the Kona office.
It took over 2 years for my case, but I was so grateful that Legal Aid was there to guide me along the day way. I couldn’t have done it without them.
I was so honored when I was asked to serve on the Board as a Client Member Director. Over the years I referred about 10 people and Legal Aid was able to help almost all of them. I know a lot of folks hesitate about calling Legal Aid, and especially right now when so many people are worried about losing their homes and getting evicted.
I want to encourage people in the community to make that first call because you’ll never know unless speak with someone. They were able to help me and my son, and I am so grateful for that.
Although I do not have a direct connection to Legal Aid, I have a deep fondness for Hawaii and a true wish for all people who are in need have access to the help they require, legal or any other means. My donation is one way I can make a gesture to help the people of Hawaii.
I first visited Hawaii in 2016 and in the weeks before the trip, I read some of the history of Hawaii. When I arrived in Honolulu, I felt an immediate embrace by Hawaii's energy. That sensation has never left me and I plan to continue to give what I can to help improve life for the people of Hawaii and the land as well.
I also appreciate the work done by Legal Aid organizations. I know the law is a complicated world and for attorneys to give their expertise is a noble gesture. Since many hurdles in our society require the aid of a lawyer, I think it is one of the areas that should be an essential service, available to everyone.
As a Board member, I believe the impact that the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii has in the community is needed and very important to those that are very vulnerable in our society. Legal Aid has helped so many people including myself. Their assistance is greatly appreciated by all those who don't understand and are desperately seeking help and answers during tough times.
I would like others to know that whenever you're in doubt or don't understand the laws about renter's rights, family abuse, citizenship, divorce, custody, disability or simply needing assistance to fill out necessary court documents, don't ever feel ashamed or afraid to contact Legal Aid.
The best decision that I've ever made was to take that first step, calling Legal Aid for assistance when I needed it most. Legal Aid staff helped me and guided me in the right direction.
Mahalo, Legal Aid for all you do!
- Loel-Anjanette Kaikuaana, Board Member, 6 years of service
In 2016, the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii’s fair housing enforcement program uncovered that a private student housing provider was unfairly discriminating against families with children.
“We found through our testing that families with children were being turned away from Savio’s student housing. The settlement, after litigation in which we joined in a case by the Department of Justice, resulted in a very progressive family policy for relating to families in private student housing organizations that was much stronger than anyone was able to obtain in a settlement elsewhere in the country,” said Dan O’Meara, managing attorney for consumer and housing unit and director of Legal Aid’s Fair Housing enforcement program.
Around the country, families with children in private student housing would generally not be charged extra for children ages 2 years old or under. If the child is older than 2 years old, he/she would be charged as an additional person living in the unit.
“When others settled, they settled for policies that limit the age at 2 years old or maybe 4 years old. We were able to negotiate that a parent with a minor child, up to age 17, would not be charged extra for that child to live in the unit,” said O’Meara. This is all part of our efforts to address the needs for family housing in our community, in all circumstances.
READ THE DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE PRESS RELEASE
When people need help, it is so important to know that the Legal Aid Society of Hawai`i is there. As a volunteer teacher's aide at an elementary school, I was recently invited to attend a parent get together because the organizer knew that I served on the Board for the Legal Aid Society of Hawai`i.
Many of the families who attended the meeting came from Mayor Wright Homes, and needed to get legal information to address a variety of issues. I was able to help them as far as making that connection to Legal Aid and the services we provide in family, housing, public benefits, and citizenship.
Many of these parents brought their children to the meeting, to help them with accessing technology, too. They would say, “Aunty, my mom and dad don’t know how to use the computer.”
It was a good opportunity for me as a TA in STEM to teach the children, so they could help their parents navigate their way through online portals and forms. They’re really grateful when they see that I can help be a bridge and connect them to Legal Aid – they feel comfortable asking me, and then they come back and say, “Thank you, Aunty, for sharing Legal Aid with us! They helped!” That’s what life is about is… helping each other!
-Aldora Kahele, Board Member, 4 years of service
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!