Salazar will retire after 40 years at Legal Aid

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PHOTO BY CYNTHIA PRICE

By Cynthia Price

An article in the Spring 2008 Centralight, the magazine of Juan Salazar’s alma mater Central Michigan University, quotes him as saying about Legal Aid of Western Michigan (LAWM), “I decided that helping those less fortunate in the community was not a bad thing to do. I found my calling here, my mission.”

That article was written when Salazar was working out of the Grand Rapids office as an advocate for people with disabilities. LAWM covers 17 counties, including Muskegon, where it has one of its five offices, and Ottawa, with an office in Holland.

At the time of the Centralight article, Salazar had recently won the Liberty Bell Award from the Grand Rapids Bar Association, given to a non-lawyer.
Little did he know then that he would become the interim, and then the permanent, executive director of LAWM after the untimely passing of Michael Chielens in 2013.

Now he has announced his retirement, though the current intention is for him to stay on until he can overlap a bit with his successor.

Any way you look at it, Grand Rapids is a long way from the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where Salazar grew up. He tells of attending a school where speaking Spanish was strictly forbidden. “If a kid had a beef with you at lunch hour or play period, they could just lie and say they heard you speaking Spanish and tell the principal. And then they would spank you with a really big board,” he says.

Salazar originally came here in the summer as a migrant farmworker, to help pack fruits and vegetables at the DeBruyn Produce Company near Byron Center. A few years later, he heeded the advice of people who encouraged him – “I appreciate that, because all they really had was encouragement,” he says – and applied for a special scholarship offered to migrants by Central Michigan University. He notes that both his parents were strong believers in getting a good education.

After finishing high school in Texas, he was accepted to the university, where he majored in English and political science. (The Centralight article shows a very clean-cut Salazar in a CMU T-shirt.) There he found a community of others with similar backgrounds, language, and the ambition to succeed.

Unlike many of that group, Salazar stayed.  “I’ve survived every winter since then,” he says with a grin.

His first position was at Migrant Legal Aid in Grand Rapids. He says, “I spent a couple of summers reaching out and helping migrant farmworkers. I even went back to DeBruyn. There was a dispute  and a possible strike over a bonus that workers were promised, so we went down to discuss it. They reached an agreement. It felt funny to be there again, but it was interesting because it helped that they knew me.”

But then in 1978, Salazar found his home.

He became a public benefits advocate at LAWM, helping clients with a broad range of problems. After time, he came to focus on those seeking Supplemen-tal Security Income, people with disabilities or over 65 who are not eligible for Society Security.

“There was a big upsurge in the need for people to represent disabled people in administrative hearings,” Salazar comments. He pursues his cases doggedly and has a high success rate, but he acknowledges that his clients are still poor.

“But getting SSI also makes you eligible for Medicaid, food stamps, some other benefits, and you can take advantage of some of the other programs out there, like Catholic Charities,” he says.

Salazar has served a large number of non-profits, which LAWM encourages for all of the staff. “From day 1, the first director I worked under said, ‘Your voice isn’t really heard out there unless you start joining boards.’ They  sent me to board member training and paid costs associated with it, including mileage,” says Salazar.

His own involvement has included the Heart of West Michigan United Way, Senior Neighbors, the Ferris State University legal studies advisory committee, the statewide Victim Assistance advisory committee, and the Michigan League for Public Policy, as well as ten years on the Catholic Charities of West Michigan
board, the last four as its vice-chair.

This has continued as he rose to the executive director position, and he has also maintained an advocacy caseload. He attributes the success of LAWM’s fund-raising efforts since the decrease in federal funding from the Legal Services Corporation to the fact that “people support the mission.”

It is clear that Salazar’s heart is still with the disabilities advocacy work, but he is also looking forward to retirement. He says he is planning to get seriously involved with something else, but will take the time to see what comes his way. He also  plans to spend time with his four grandchildren and re-connect with his family from Texas and around the country.

He says he feels sure his successor will do well. “We have a good board of directors and a good, experienced staff of attorneys,” Salazar says. “There’s a great administrative staff.  I don’t think any individual we hire is going to have a big adjustment.

“I’m just a spoke in a great big wheel, ” Salazar says modestly. “We’ll keep moving ahead – trying to narrow the justice gap.”

LAWM has already started to advertise to fill the position. To see more, visit www.nlada.org/node/19951; the deadline for application is October 15.

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