Evonne Zook retires: ‘Change of any sort requires courage’

Evonne Zook, front and center, with the 2014 Family Assistance team.

Evonne Zook, front and center, with the 2014 Family Assistance team

After 15 years working as an attorney for Solid Ground’s Family Assistance program where she helped people living on low incomes access public benefits, Evonne Zook is moving on to her next adventure. While she is leaving our agency and even Washington state to settle in Lake Havasu, Arizona with family, Evonne is hardly retiring. With so many new and changing laws, especially regarding immigration, she hopes to volunteer or do pro bono work in the field to continue to help people in need.

The trajectory of Evonne’s journey to Solid Ground was unconventional, but fueled by a commitment to serve the public and fight for justice. As a single mother, she worked in the banking industry while raising her children until 1990. However, the corporate environment contradicted her natural instincts, and she struggled against the system before deciding to return to school to finish her undergraduate studies.

At 54 years old, Evonne moved to Washington from Oregon to enter law school. In 1998, she volunteered for the first time at what was then the Fremont Public Association, and says she “fell in love with the Family Assistance program, helping people who were really in need rather than fighting corporate businesses.” After taking the bar exam, there was a job opening at Solid Ground; she applied for it immediately after passing the test and has been with the agency ever since.

Family Assistance is one of the only programs in King County practicing civil law to represent people on public benefits issues. State funding is rare for non-criminal court cases when public defenders are not automatically provided, so Solid Ground’s attorneys fill that gap. Utilizing a cooperative approach, they work closely with Solid Ground’s JourneyHome and other housing programs to get people the support they need. Evonne emphasizes that collaborating “with people who have the same goals is a wonderful thing.”

She reflects that her most memorable moments have been helping people get benefits they didn’t even know they were entitled to, after being entrenched for years by the biases of the state’s bureaucratic system:

Evonne-circleWhat we do is represent clients for no charge who are having problems with public benefits – who have been denied or had their benefits reduced for cash, food, Medicaid and childcare. And we will represent the client in administrative hearings if we believe the client has made a mistake or is being discriminated against in any way. So it’s been very busy with changes in the law.

There are a lot of attorneys in the state trying to work on changing the laws, and I do believe that is valuable work. But given my age, I always thought it was more beneficial to help the clients slipping through the cracks right now than it was to try and change the laws that I might never see. That progress is kind of like evolution: Changes happen so slowly that sometimes people experiencing the problems now don’t have any hope that anything is ever going to change.

I think that the real benefit we’ve been able to offer to clients in this program is access to the law, access to the courts, and to justice. Because a lot of people give up; they think the courts are only for those that can afford the best and most expensive lawyers; they think the law is not on their side or that things are hopeless.

So we’re talking about the law that enables them to support their families and move out of poverty, and we’ve been able to offer clients enough encouragement and explanation of what the law says so they feel they are in tune with the law. We’re not able to change the law on this level, but lots of times, if we let a client know what their rights are, they feel so much better.”

Evonne feels the poor have to have an advocate against the gatekeepers to social services who are bound by their own prejudices. Clients also have the right to be heard; they have constitutional rights to due process, and every decision the state makes to harm them or take away a benefit, they have the right to protest. “In the meantime, we can offer them alternatives and some support.”

Many clients have mental health issues, and courts tend to be sympathetic, tuned-in to individuals who are fighting the state bureaucracy for services and basic rights that the law allows. Even so, about 80% of cases are settled outside of court, because Family Assistance’s style is “to help the client first and foremost, not to ‘win.’ We can’t take every case, but we can explain the law, who can help them, what they can do and what alternatives are available to them.”

Evonne-Flowers-WebA plaque in Evonne’s office reads, “Change of any sort requires courage,” an apt metaphor for the challenges of retirement. Until about four years ago, she was Lead Benefits Attorney. At the time, she “decided to step down and maybe partially retire. Stephanie Earhart has taken over the lead since that point, and it has worked out great.” But she found “part-time retirement didn’t work for me – being in the office three days a week and thinking about the cases the other two days – so I returned to full-time. But I think it was important at that time to pass on the leadership role of the program to Stephanie.” And now, she says, “I’m 72 years old; it’s time to change and I’m ready.”

Looking at the stacked boxes of files filled with decades’ worth of clients in Evonne’s office, it is remarkable to see a physical representation of the deep impact she has had on the countless people she has served. “I have loved working with the people here at Solid Ground; their values are so in tune with making the world a better place. It’s been just a wonderful experience; I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”

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