Born and raised in the Hyogo Prefecture in Japan, Hitomi "Makalani" Imai, a Legal Aid client, never imagined she would live in Hawaii – “a beautiful land, with such beautiful energy,” she describes.
She is excited about her future as her life has turned around in surprising ways, and has adopted the Hawaiian name "Makalani" (eye of heaven) to symbolize a new start. She is also launching her life coaching program for fellow Japanese early next year.
“I’ve always been thinking of my experience because emotional abuse is a big thing,” says Makalani. “My whole life is up and down, and I didn’t have the confidence. Now I know how to get the confidence. And I know many Japanese struggle with the same thing because of the culture. So, I decided to become a spiritual life coach.”
There had been a season in Makalani’s life when she was unable to speak and stand up for herself, and Legal Aid helped her get through it.
It started in 2017 when she arrived on Oahu and married a man she met online after several months of courtship. They had a rocky beginning. He had broken up their engagement once for “not keeping some promises.” One promise was for Makalani to stop communicating with friends.
About a year into the marriage when Makalani applied to become a lawful permanent US resident (get a green card), her husband vacillated between supporting and not supporting her application. He threatened divorce and told her to go back to Japan. She finally decided to divorce him when he denied support on the day of Makalani’s immigration interview.
Makalani was resigned to accept her fate until she found out about Legal Aid through a friend. Legal Aid stepped in and negotiated with her then husband, eventually getting her to receive financial compensation.
“The Legal Aid attorney sent him a beautiful, strong, confident email to negotiate,” recalls Makalani. “It is not about the money, but it gave me the confidence that I’m okay, that I will be fine. With Legal Aid’s support, I finally stood up for me.”
The support Makalani received from Legal Aid staff went beyond the legal battle. They were there for her emotionally; they became her pillars of strength.
“Whenever I start to worry, the attorney and the paralegal always get back to me,” she says. “They were very supportive all the time. They are amazing!”
The divorce was finalized in 2019, and in April 2021, Makalani finally received a green card, applying as a self-petitioner under the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). In a few years, she plans to apply for US citizenship.
“Legal Aid helps immigrants who are in a position of being powerless. They think that they have nowhere to go. But Legal Aid helps them and lets them feel they are important individuals.”
Now, while preparing to launch her business called “Aloha Style Services,” Makalani works with a construction company using her administrative and accounting background. She also freelances as a translator of information materials from English to Japanese, and is currently in a supportive, loving relationship.
“I’m doing great,” she says. And her smile says it all.
Advocating for justice by making legal services accessible – that’s one of the passions of Charles Greenfield, a longtime supporter, and former Executive Director of Legal Aid Society of Hawai’i.
The spark started when Charles, who also goes by “Chuck,” was a young legal aid lawyer in San Jose, California. As his interest grew, it relocated him to different states and countries. He served in various roles as lawyer, consultant, and executive director - in Northern Virginia, Washington D.C., Guam, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, Saipan, the Federal States of Micronesia, American Samoa, and the Republic of Palau.
Chuck’s time in Hawaii as Legal Aid’s Executive Director from 2006 to 2009 was short but meaningful.
He faced three significant challenges when he started at Legal Aid: (1) the high number of residents facing critical civil legal needs throughout the islands; (2) a Legal Services Corporation restriction preventing Legal Aid from representing Hawaii residents who were from the Federated States of Micronesia, Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau; and (3) Legal Aid’s low salary levels.
To meet the tremendous need for civil legal services, Chuck aggressively promoted the telephone intake system, now called “Intake,” expanded Legal Aid’s outreach efforts, and increased and improved partnerships with community groups and government entities.
Chuck led the effort, with support from others, to successfully convince the Board of Directors of the Legal Services Corporation to change its regulation to allow for representation by Legal Aid of Micronesians living in Hawaii.
In an attempt to raise salaries paid to Legal Aid employees, he received the support of Legal Aid’s Board of Directors to increase salaries. Another achievement was working in collaboration with others to establish the Hawaii Access to Justice Commission. Chuck was a member of the first Hawaii Access to Justice Commission.
“To make justice real, we need to ensure that people have access to legal aid. We can help them get relief, or fight discrimination,” says Chuck. “There are so many people whose lives are being trampled on because they don’t know their rights.”
Chuck is now retired with 45 years of legal aid work under his belt. But he is far from done in helping the community. He recently finished serving as interim executive director for American Samoa Legal Aid, and also retired as general counsel for Micronesian Legal Services Corporation. He lives on the Big Island.
He is calling on lawyers to lend a hand, or a voice, in this advocacy.
“As lawyers we have an obligation to see that people are treated fairly under law,” says Chuck. “We have an obligation to see that something is done to help those with unmet legal needs. One way is to contribute money or time to Legal Aid.”
According to Chuck, Legal Aid Society of Hawai’i is one of the premier legal aid programs he has seen throughout the country with its “innovative programs, excellent leadership team and wonderful staff.”
“The future is bright for the organization, but it needs money and volunteer lawyers,” he stresses. “It is important for the community in Hawaii to contribute to Legal Aid so we can help them staff up for the challenge and help bring positive outcomes for residents. We need to help make justice real for our community.”
That’s why he donates to Legal Aid, Chuck says.
“So many people are facing critical challenges. There is certainly something we can do about that. Good legal advocacy can bring them much-needed relief.”
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.
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.