Engaged Learning

Listen. Learn. Pivot.

Professor Heidi Ho and students support Maui residents impacted by wildfires.

by Sarah Cronin

Last August, when USF Law Professor Heidi Ho ‘97 received news of the devastating wildfires on Maui, she swung into action. A native of the island, Ho has led response efforts by co-founding Pro Bono Organization for Native Ohana (PONO) Legal, a non-profit providing legal support to residents impacted by the fires.

Ho initially thought she’d be practicing probate law, but she soon discovered the legal response needed was far more complex.

“In a disaster, there are about nine areas of law…everything from insurance to FEMA appeals, to mortgage, to real estate, to immigration, to probate, to family law. Everything is triggered all at once.”

So, in September 2023, PONO launched a legal specialty hub concept, collaborating with legal entities like the Hawaii State Bar Association, Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, and the Maui County Bar Association to provide residents with step-by-step guidance across multiple legal areas. 

“My motto for disaster work is listen, learn, pivot,” Ho says. “I changed it a little from the California disaster motto which is to live, learn, pivot.”

From the outset, Ho worked directly with residents, hosting ‘listening sessions’ in community spaces, parks, garages, and public areas where residents gathered to receive basic needs and resources. 

“Because we are Maui-based, I was born and raised on Maui and my mom has been a Maui lawyer for over 40 years, people trust us,” Ho says.

But the team faced an additional challenge: rapidly changing disaster relief deadlines, which dictated when residents could apply to receive Disaster Unemployment, SBA loans, FEMA appeals, or moratoriums on their mortgage payments. 

With the help of USF Law students Kasey Isobe ‘24 and Alondra Saldivar ‘24, PONO Legal launched an Instagram account to get the word out about legal aid, housing, and educational access.

Isobe, who is originally from Mililani, Hawai’i, felt a strong personal connection to the project.

“It was so heartbreaking to see people I know and to hear stories of other families who had everything taken away from them in an instant.” Isobe says, “Like many members in the community, I wanted to jump in to help in any way that I can.”

Saldivar was drawn to the project in part because of USF’s emphasis on social justice engagement. 

“USF itself has been a strong community where I feel connected to my peers and well aware of the crises that our communities face outside of our bubble,” Salidvar says, “Having an opportunity to help with PONO Legal has been an honor.”

To date, the PONO Legal team has been able to help those firefighters, lifeguards, and police officers who lost their homes as well as several teachers. 

And their work will only grow. Over the past few weeks, the organization was awarded a $200,000 grant from the Maui Strong Fund of the Hawai‘i Community Foundation (HCF) as well as a $75,000 grant from the Hawaii Justice Foundation.

Ho says she feels grateful that she has been able to use her legal skillset to help her community during this crisis.

“That’s what we are as lawyers, problem solvers,” Ho says, “I am fortunate to be able to help. I am also grateful to USF for allowing me to pursue this calling and to my students who are helping me along the way.”