May 01, 2019
Love stories take shape differently for some people, and for Diane Calandros, it’s not just about romance—it’s about every facet of her life. She is, of course, deeply in love with her husband of 24 years, Jerry, and their two children and four grandchildren, but filling her life with love means pursuing a career where she works for passion, not money, and practicing kindness in her community and church.
In 2001, Diane had already been working as a legal assistant for almost 20 years at many of West Virginia’s more prominent law firms in Charleston, where they tend to set up shop in the southwest corner of the state. As a Logan resident, Diane was tired of her 60-mile commute but loved her work in the legal field. That’s when she came across a TANF paralegal position at Legal Aid of West Virginia (LAWV) in their Logan office.
The prospect of continuing legal work in her hometown drove Diane to apply, and once she learned more about legal aid and what TANF paralegals do for the community each day, she found herself in a new career that may have paid less than her last job but offered so much more. “That was the best decision I ever made,” she says.
TANF paralegals, as they’re called at LAWV, work primarily on helping disabled West Virginians get Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) benefits. They also help residents resolve problems with their driver’s licenses, which can act as a barrier to employment or more. Diane is also the appointed pro bono and pro se clinic contact in the Logan office, so she helps connect LAWV to the community through free legal clinics and outreach events.
“All of my cases when I began were social security benefits, and I knew nothing about it,” says Diane, recalling her first days on the job. “I read everything I could get my hands on. I had a good medical background so that part was easy for me.” With her experience from past law firms and the guidance of a kind ALJ (administrative law judge), Diane progressed quickly.
“I believe I matured into an effective advocate,” she says. “Still, to this day, I feel like I learn something new at every hearing that helps me with my skills.” Beyond skills, she also carries fierce compassion for her clients, which has made her a force to be reckoned on behalf of her clients, all of whom are better off having met Diane since going through the benefits process usually takes about two years. While they’re waiting, her clients still don’t have income, and she is determined to help them make ends meet when she can.
In one particular case, Diane worked with a veteran who had sustained severe injuries to his back, leading to extensive surgery and limited mobility. “His back looked like a cage,” she says. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” His Medicaid benefits stopped covering his treatment, so he was unable to get care after his operations. When it seemed like he wouldn’t get assistance due to lack of medical records, Diane was able to convince the judge to arrange a physician’s exam to determine if the client was disabled.
While he was awaiting decision, Diane worked with the local food bank to make sure he had enough to eat and helped him get a new bed when he got bed bugs from another tenant in the building. “That case was a fight, but I was not going to give up on it. I’ve seen some of my clients lose everything while waiting on a disability hearing. Nothing makes me happier than to see them rebuild their life.”
Her husband, Jerry, has known to help clients rebuild their lives by helping secure furniture for them, and they are both active in the community and their church. Diane chairs the Christmas Outreach Project at their church, which provided Christmas gifts and food to Logan families in need for over 20 years. Diane also loves to shop, especially for her three granddaughters, and is on a first-name basis with her local UPS driver. When she and Jerry are ready, Diane plans to convince him to retire to the beach, but until then, she is at home serving her community. “I hope when I am gone, I’m remembered for my kindness,” she says. And we at Legal Aid, and all of those she’s helped in Logan, are confident she will be.