In all of Northern New Hampshire, there are two people working on behalf of New Hampshire Legal Assistance to provide legal help to those in need. One of them is retiring this week.
Dona Larsen has served as a paralegal in the Berlin Office for over 35 years. A native Berliner, she’s witnessed changes in the region over the course of her career. Friday is her last day in the office.
This your last week in the office and as you wrap up your work. Are there any cases left on your desk?
Yes there are, and they're being transferred either to my supervising attorney Ruth Heintz or to another advocate in the program.
How did you first get involved with New Hampshire Legal Assistance?
That’s a good story. I'd been living in Miami Florida and working as a social worker. I had a three year old son and I decided that that was not a good place for him to be. So I moved back to Berlin which is my hometown. I was hired by New Hampshire Legal Assistance in 1978, the first time, because I did have experience working with public benefits programs in Florida.
You’ve been handling cases in the Burlin area since 1978, a lot of that time with New Hampshire Legal Assistance. Has the nature of the problems people face changed very much in the time you've been working?
Unfortunately, no. I had hoped that a lot of the issues that we were seeing when I first started a New Hampshire Legal Assistance would be magically resolved by now. Cases like local welfare, public benefits, disability benefits, food stamp cases. But unfortunately the same old cases are the same old cases.
New Hampshire Legal Assistance is a nonprofit relying on funding from private donors from the state. State funding cuts have caused offices to close throughout the state, including a large funding cut in 2011. What's the impact on the people you serve when funding for NHLA drops?
It has a drastic effect. In fact when we downsized the Berlin office I was left up here alone, basically, with a telephone and a direct line to my supervisor. So going from an office staff of another paralegal, two attorneys, and a support staff person, to one person has a tremendous impact on the people that we serve in the North Country.
What are you most proud of in your work that you've done at New Hampshire Legal Assistance?
After 38 and a half years, it's really hard to point out one case that really impacted me and impacted the clients. I did work on the Trade Readjustment Act case which started off up here in the North Country with unemployment, when the Converse shoe company went down. Surprisingly enough, our office at that point was right next to the unemployment office. So there was a stream of people coming from the Department of Employment Office to our office.
Those displaced workers were eligible for a federal supplement benefit. When we discovered that New Hampshire was not participating in the Trade Readjustment Act program we took the case all the way to federal district court. So if I had to point to one thing that would be it because we got these people their safety net. It wasn't only for the North Country, it was for the entire state of New Hampshire, from just a couple of cases that we did in the Berlin office.
After you leave at the end of the week, are there plans for someone to fill your role?
Yes they're going to be replacing me with a lawyer and there's another position that's available for another grant funding that we have.
How does it feel to be walking away after so many years on the job?
It's a little scary. I'm not quite sure how I feel, although we do have a new computer program that I'm just learning today and that certainly is going to help me not feel so bad about leaving.
So you're actually spending time learning this computer program that you'll use for two days?
Yes. You can teach an old dog new tricks.