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Western offices renamed
We are a statewide, nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services in civil matters to low-income people in order to ensure equal access to justice and to remove legal barriers to economic opportunity.

Western offices renamed

​New names for our western offices highlight their regional reach

RALEIGH · March 9, 2020—Legal Aid of North Carolina's three westernmost offices have changed their names to reflect their broad regional reach.

Our Boone, Morganton and Sylva offices are now our High Country office, Foothills office and Smoky Mountains office, respectively. (Our Sylva office and its Hayesville branch will be referred to as the "Smoky Mountains offices.")

"Our offices have traditionally been named after the cities in which they are located physically, but our attorneys represent clients throughout multi-county service areas," said Barbara Degen, regional manager of our western region, who is based in our Foothills office.

"Given the limited transportation options for many rural North Carolinians," Degen said, "we work closely with our clients to ensure that distance from our offices is not a barrier to representation. Staff travel frequently to each of the western counties for court appearances, client and group meetings, and special events such as wills clinics for seniors. We provide the same level of service to each client regardless of the client's home community."

"Legal Aid of North Carolina's mission is to ensure equal access to justice for all North Carolinians, regardless of income and other barriers, including geography," said Hilary Ventura, managing attorney of our Foothills office. "Distance from a Legal Aid office should not determine whether a domestic violence victim gets a protective order, whether a family avoids eviction and homelessness, or whether a senior citizen is wrongfully denied Medicare. We are dedicated to serving our clients equally, however far away from our offices they might be."

"We want folks to know that we serve the entire High Country," said Jonathan Perry, managing attorney of our High Country office. "Whether you are facing eviction in Bakersville, trying to get a restraining order in Avery or facing foreclosure in Wilkesboro, our staff travels to clients and courthouses from Burnsville to Sparta. We deeply care about the lives of our clients and are here to serve people in need."

"Even though we can't have an office in every community," said Suzanne Saucier, managing attorney of our Smoky Mountains offices, "we do have an office that serves every community. We hope these name changes better communicate to our clients that we are there for them, wherever they are."

The area served by our three western offices is just over 7,800 square miles and contains nearly 830,000 people, 323,000 of whom live at or below 200% of the federal poverty line, meaning they qualify for at least some of our services (see below for breakdown by county). Due to our limited funding, we serve this entire area with a staff of 24: 17 attorneys and seven paralegals (see sidebar for a breakdown by office).

With such a small staff to meet such a great need—a major national study estimates that nearly three-quarters of low-income people have at least one civil legal problem per year—we implement a strict case-acceptance protocol to ensure that we can handle the most important cases for the most people.

We only accept cases when our clients' basic human needs—physical safety, shelter, stable income—are at stake. The bulk of our cases involve domestic violence, eviction and other housing issues, consumer rights, public benefits and more. See below for examples of client success stories from 2019.

Legal Aid of North Carolina's roots in Western North Carolina go all the way back to the 1970s, when the Office of Economic Opportunity, a now-extinct creation of President Johnson's War on Poverty, provided major funding for the launch of civil legal aid organizations around the country.

First on the scene was the Eastern Cherokee Legal Services Office in Sylva, which launched in 1974, changed its name to Western North Carolina Legal Services in 1978 and is now our Smoky Mountains office. Catawba Valley Legal Services and Legal Services of the Blue Ridge, predecessors to our Foothills office and High Country office, respectively, launched in 1979.

In 2002, independent civil legal aid organizations from across North Carolina, including the predecessors to our three western offices, joined forces to form Legal Aid of North Carolina, a single, statewide organization serving all 100 North Carolina counties.

At that time, the three offices dropped their former names and became our Boone, Morganton and Sylva offices.

Note: Our statewide Helpline, in Raleigh, provides limited services to residents of Buncombe, Henderson, Madison, Polk, Rutherford and Transylvania counties. The Helpline refers clients requiring extended services to Pisgah Legal Services, a separate civil legal aid organization, headquartered in Asheville. Our statewide projects serve residents of these six counties in cases that fall within the projects' purviews.

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About

Legal Aid of North Carolina is a statewide nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services in civil matters to low-income people in order to ensure equal access to justice and to remove legal barriers to economic opportunity. Follow us on FacebookTwitter and YouTube.

Media Contact

Sean Driscoll, Director of Public Relations, 919-856-2132, seand@legalaidnc.org

 

DATA: Population and poverty in WNC ^

Counties served by our Foothills office

County Land area
(sq. miles)
Total population Population below
200% of poverty (#)
Population below
200% of poverty (%)
Alexander26037,11913,98738%
Burke50789,71236,54941%
Caldwell47281,77933,26241%
Catawba399156,72955,48235%
McDowell44145,10918,74242%
Total (5 counties) 2,078 410,448 158,022 38%

 

Counties served by our High Country office

County Land area
(sq. miles)
Total population Population below
200% of poverty (#)
Population below
200% of poverty (%)
Alleghany23510,9735,29548%
Ashe42626,78610,01137%
Avery24717,5016,43937%
Mitchell22115,0405,14334%
Watauga31354,11721,26339%
Wilkes75468,46029,13043%
Yancey31317,6677,93245%
Total (7 counties) 2,509 210,544 85,213 40%

 

Counties served by our Smoky Mountains offices

County Land area
(sq. miles)
Total population Population below
200% of poverty (#)
Population below
200% of poverty (%)
Cherokee45527,66811,22641%
Clay21510,8134,71744%
Graham2928,5574,05847%
Haywood55460,43320,02233%
Jackson49142,25615,69637%
Macon60934,41012,70937%
EBCI Territory*899,1914,26246%
Swain52814,2546,71747%
Total (7 counties + EBCI Territory) 3,233 207,582 79,407 38%

 

Grand total

County Land area
(sq. miles)
Total population Population below
200% of poverty (#)
Population below
200% of poverty (%)
Total (19 counties + EBCI Territory) 7,820 828,574 322,642 39%

*Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Territory

Source: All population numbers come from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey (2018, 5-year estimates), available on data.census.gov.

 

STORIES: Making a difference in WNC^

Foothills office saves home for elderly widow

Our client was an elderly widow who had lived in her home for decades. Surviving entirely on Social Security retirement benefits, she eventually became unable to afford her monthly mortgage payments. She applied for a loan, but her application was denied because she did not have clear title to the property. Years earlier, to help her family members resolve some financial trouble, she had executed and recorded a deed transferring her interest in the home to a family trust. However, there were questions about the validity of the deed. As we investigated, we obtained continuances of the foreclosure proceedings to keep our client in her home. Eventually, the family members who were acting as trustees of the family trust agreed to execute a deed returning ownership of the home to our client. Once the deed was recorded and title issue resolved, we partnered with a housing counselor to finally obtain a loan for our client. Her monthly payments dropped to an affordable amount, and our client is extremely grateful that she will be able to remain in her home for the rest of her life.

High Country office saves "mountain man" from crushing debt load

Our client, a polite but reserved "mountain man" from Mitchell County, came to us in 2019 after the denial of his Medicaid claim. In his late fifties, our client suffered from numerous medical conditions, including diabetes, lung disease, paralysis of one side of his body, and more. A year earlier, he underwent invasive surgery that left him hospitalized for months. Overall, he found himself facing $257,000 in medical bills—just over a quarter of a million dollars. Physically unable to work, he had no way to pay them off. He had applied for Medicaid himself, but was denied. He appealed, and a hearing was set. By the time he came to us, his hearing was a week away—not nearly enough time for us to prepare. We secured a month-long continuance and got to work gathering evidence and coordinating with our client's caseworker from the Department of Social Services. When the day of the hearing came, we were ready. Our client arrived in his camo jacket, walking with his trusty cane. Our attorney argued persuasively for our client's Medicaid eligibility. A month after the hearing, we learned that Medicaid granted coverage to our client, backdating it to a year prior, resulting in him getting $301,443 in retroactive benefits—more than enough to pay off his debt. Now covered by Medicaid, our client is finally seeking much-needed medical care that he could not afford before.

Smoky Mountains office protects victim of brutal abuse

Our client, a resident of Haywood County, was a woman in her fifties who was in a long-term abusive relationship with her partner. She had tried to leave him numerous times, but always came back. Then, in early 2019, the violence escalated. Her partner used a hawkbill knife and two butcher knives to stab and cut her all over her body: on her forehead, chin, arms and hands. He held one of the knives to her eye and threatened to cut it out. He also pistol-whipped her, kicked her, and threatened to kill her multiple times. This time, our client went to the police. Her partner was charged with Felony Assault with a Deadly Weapon. She came to us thanks to a referral from the local domestic violence shelter. We helped her file a request for a Domestic Violence Protective Order. Her partner refused to consent to the order, forcing the parties to attend a hearing in court. In the past, when her partner demanded a hearing, our client, fearful of confronting him in open court, would usually dismiss her complaint. Not this time. We represented our client at the hearing and she was granted a one-year protective order against her abuser. Her success gave her courage to testify against her partner in his criminal trial a few days later. The jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to 10-13 years behind bars.