Salazar Wins Liberty Bell

April 30, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — Legal Aid of West Michigan Public Benefits Advocate Juan Salazar will be honored with the Grand Rapids Bar Association's Liberty Bell Award in a special Law Day ceremony tomorrow afternoon at the Peninsular Club in downtown Grand Rapids.

The award recognizes a non-lawyer or nonprofit organization that has made an outstanding contribution to the cause of justice or has advanced public understanding of the U.S. Constitution.

A paralegal by trade, Salazar has been working on behalf of the disadvantaged for over a quarter-century. Originally an advocate for most types of public assistance — Medicaid, unemployment, etc. — he has for several years focused almost entirely on disability benefits, particularly cases involving Supplemental Security Income.

"The folks that Juan represents are people who are really in their last inning," said Michael Chielens, executive director of Legal Aid of West Michigan, who nominated Salazar for the award. "If they don't get this income, they could be out on the street. It's not unusual for his clients to be at one of the shelters, and this little bit of income really makes a huge difference in their lives."

Supplemental Security Income is a Social Security Administration program funded by general tax revenues that is designed to help aged, blind and/or disabled people who have little or no income meet basic needs for food, clothing and shelter.

Participation in the program provides $623 of monthly income, entry into the federal Medicaid program, access to food stamps and often subsidized housing.

"A person who has nothing can get food, shelter, medical care, and maybe even a place to call their own," Salazar said. "We can get them out from living underneath a bridge or relying on friends and missions."

Most of Salazar's practice is administrative law, conducting interviews and gathering the paperwork necessary to forward the disability claim. He then advocates on behalf of his client to an administrative law judge and ushers the case through the legal process.

"A lot of my clients have mental health issues; they are less than articulate and may have some trouble presenting themselves," Salazar said. "It's tough to go before a judge and present your case, especially when you don't know what the laws are and how the process works. You need somebody to advocate on your behalf."

In some cases, Salazar has seen clients completely turn their lives around. He recalled one client a number of years ago with a degenerative eye disease. The young lady was rapidly going blind, but "still wanted to go to college and live a better life than her parents." With Salazar's help, she was able to satisfy the strict SSI requirements and receive disability benefits. A group of local doctors volunteered to provide a cornea transplant if she could prove the regular income and access to medical care necessary for follow-up care, which the disability benefits made possible.

The next time Salazar met the young lady, at a Latino students conference, he was happy to hear that she had since enrolled in college and was working toward a degree.

"I don't just take the easy cases," Salazar said. "I pride myself on doing cases that aren't clear cut, because these are the people who need a little bit more help. If I can find a way to make an argument on their behalf — great, but if not, I'm at least going to try."

There should not be any shortage of cases anytime in the foreseeable future, Salazar said. Currently, there are more than 11,000 appeals of disability cases pending in the West Michigan area.

"I'm a team player," Salazar said of his co-workers at Legal Aid of Western Michigan. "I'm happy to be selected for this award, but this award is not just mine; it's a team award."

Chielens also nominated last year's Liberty Bell honoree, Penelope Pestle, former executive director of Delta Strategy and current principal of Potential Community Systems Change, for her work with the Re-Entry Roundtable of Kent County.

Other individuals being recognized by the bar tomorrow are Bruce Courtade, an attorney with Rhoades McKee who will receive the Annual President's Award, and Ann Cooper, of Drew, Cooper & Anding, who will receive the Donald R. Worsfold Distinguished Service Award.     

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