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.”
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
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
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