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.
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.
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.
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.
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!"