Lucy Howell Serves Immigration Legal Center Casa Cornelia For 12 Years - Coronado Eagle & Journal | Coronado News | Coronado Island News: Coronado Home And Business

Lucy Howell Serves Immigration Legal Center Casa Cornelia For 12 Years

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Posted: Friday, April 5, 2019 4:44 pm

Immigrant rights are a hot-button issue currently, but Coronado Resident Lucy Howell was way ahead of the curve on that issue. She has been a board member and later Vice Chairman of Casa Cornelia, a San Diego-based immigration legal center for the past 12 years. Although Howell isn’t an attorney, she specialized in the other important aspect of Casa Cornelia, fundraising.

Born in Montgomery, Alabama, into a military family, Howell is the daughter of James L. Murray. Howell said, “I was a World War II baby, and my father was in the Air Force. He was part of a team that developed the airplane ejection seat. We lived at Wright Patterson Air Force Base when I was in kindergarten through third grade. He left the Air Force and served in the Reserves. He retired as a two star general and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. There are some old models of the ejection seat at the USS Midway Museum. The early ones were very primitive, but they worked.”

As is the case with most military kids, Howell moved often. After her parents divorced, she moved with her mother to Twin Falls, Idaho. “It was very different than Washington, D.C. where we lived prior to that. It was like coming to another planet. In high school I was always interested in government, political science, history and skiing. I had to have some fun.”

College included two years at Vermont’s Middlebury College, followed by a stint at Mills College in Oakland, where she majored in government. “I also went to Cal State University Long Beach for a teaching credential. I was sent there by the PTA on a scholarship, while my husband was in the Navy.”

Howell’s introduction to Coronado first came in 1965, when her husband Steve Howell, then a Navy ensign, was assigned to cryptology training. “We spent our honeymoon at the Hotel Del Coronado,” Howell recalled. “My great aunt gave us the money to stay there. Steve had orders for a minesweeper that was headed to Vietnam. We had a wonderful honeymoon and I went back to school to become a teacher.”

Howell taught in Long Beach and Pasadena for a total of five years, then retired to raise their family. “I actually loved teaching and I substituted as a teacher after our first child. After our second child, it got more complicated. We have been married for 54 years, with no time off for good behavior. Steve and I have four grown children, three are married and we have six grandchildren scattered from coast to coast from Boston to Redondo Beach to Phoenix. We live in Scottsdale three months a year. Steve has his own property management business and he is very particular. He has an office in Scottsdale, and he likes to be there during tax season.”

After living full-time in Phoenix in the early 1990’s, the Howell family came to the conclusion after two years, that living in triple digit temperatures over the five-month summer wasn’t ideal.

“We remembered Coronado as a beautiful community, and we came back and purchased a home that we have owned since 1998. We used the home in the summers and rented it in the winter. We decided to make Coronado our full-time home except for the three months we spend in a small condo each year in Scottsdale.”

Howell volunteered at her kids’ schools from the unique vantage point that her kids were born 14 years apart. “I was a room mother and carpool driver,” Howell remembered. “When we were living in Pasadena, I was involved in local government for several years on a committee related to the redevelopment of Old Pasadena. We wanted to keep the old buildings, but there was nowhere to park. The committee made a very important contribution to the future of Old Pasadena and it’s a wonderful place now.”

It was the family’s stay in Pasadena that eventually led Howell to Casa Cornelia. “I knew the foundress of Casa Cornelia Sister Ann Durst, SHCJ, when our children attended a school run by the Society of the Holy Child Jesus,” Howell explained. “I knew Sister Ann when we arrived in Coronado and Casa Cornelia was up and running. I went to find out about it and ultimately was asked to serve on the board 12 years ago. We were still living most of the year in Phoenix and I was a commuting board member.”  

Howell spoke regarding the history of Casa Cornelia Law Center. “It’s named after Cornelia Connelly, who was the founder of SHCJ, a Catholic order of nuns. The law center came about because Sister Ann Durst and her partner in founding Casa Cornelia, Sister Mary Wayne Gradon from the European Province of SHCJ, were asked by the order 25 years ago to look at the conditions on the U.S.-Mexican border and determine the need for legal assistance. They determined the San Diego-San Ysidro border crossing, which is the busiest in this hemisphere, was a place where legal help was badly needed. Because immigration law is civil, even though you may have a case, you are not eligible for legal assistance. Most people who come to the center have no resources to pay attorneys. They began Casa Cornelia in a condo with just one phone. It was a very humble start. Over time the staff has grown to 30 and last year they supervised over 200 pro bono attorneys from the San Diego Bar. We also have a whole army of interpreters who speak over 50 languages. It’s really an international effort. That’s why I was there for 12 years. My first role was to coordinate our annual honors program, which is the La Mancha Awards held at the University of San Diego. We had over 600 people there and we went from raising $70,000 the first year to just under $400,000 last year alone. Over the 12 years, I would guess we raised $1.5 million. The legal community and law firms in San Diego have been extremely generous.”

The Mission Statement of the organization is: “Casa Cornelia Law Center is a 501-C-3 non-profit law firm providing quality legal services to victims of human and civil rights violations. Casa Cornelia has a primary commitment to indigent persons within the immigrant community in Southern California. It seeks to educate others regarding the impact of immigration law and policy on the community and the public good.”

Howell provided a sense of scale for the challenge faced by Casa Cornelia. “Over the past 25 years, Casa Cornelia has served 15,000 people. That doesn’t mean they have all gone to court and that sometimes includes a simple conference or an explanation of the law. Sometimes there is a more involved case. In 2018 alone, we had 2,300 immigrants seeking assistance, from 64 different countries, speaking multiple languages. Of that total, 875 were children, 883 were asylum seekers and 530 were the victims of domestic violence or human trafficking. We are adjusting to the needs of the times. We were founded by Catholic Sisters, but in no way are we limited. We represent everyone.”

A year earlier in 2017 a total of 2,440 individuals were served by Casa Cornelia, which broke into 2,143 from Latin America, 197 from Africa, 39 from Asia, 31 from the Middle East, 20 from Eastern Europe, 6 from Western Europe and 4 from North America.

Howell was invited to be on the board and began as a member of the development committee. Part of their responsibility is the presentation of the La Mancha Awards Dinner, which honors the contributions of the non-profit’s pro bono attorneys and donors. She added, “I served as Vice Chair for many years on the Strategic Planning Committee, but most people know me as the Chair of the La Mancha Awards, our annual event.”

It was particularly meaningful to Howell, that upon her retirement from the board, Casa Cornelia re-named one of their primary awards The Annual Lucy Howell La Mancha Humanitarian Award in her honor. Howell said, “It was very emotional for me. Past recipients of the award have covered a broad spectrum. I have a plaque that indicates the award is now named after me. I still can’t believe it.”

At the same time Howell stepped down from the Casa Cornelia Board, Co-Foundresses Sister Ann Durst and Sister Mary Wayne Gradon retired as well. “All of us will still be involved with this law center, which has a mission near and dear to our hearts, representing people who cannot afford legal counsel. One of the beautiful things for me over the years has been the opportunity to observe the pro bono attorneys, who come from wildly different areas of the law. We had a chemical patent attorney volunteer because he wanted to have the experience of directly representing a human being in need. The Casa Cornelia staff trains pro bono attorneys in immigration law, some in asylum law, some in domestic violence and most recently there has been a large demand for representing children who have been separated from their families. The heroes are the pro bono attorneys who want to be trained in a very specific area of the law.”

Howell also admires Casa Cornelia Executive Director Carmen Chavez, who has held that position for the last decade. “She is a well-known spokesman in the community for the law center and a very approachable person. She has a job that’s not always easy. She has to bear in mind the mission, not take on too much, keep the budget balanced, and as a non-profit there is a constant need for donations.”

In addition to keeping in touch with Casa Cornelia, Howell will now have more time to play tennis and sail with her husband. “One of the reasons we moved to Coronado was my husband is a sailor. We race a sailboat and I’m still playing tennis. I have many tennis friends in Coronado and many generous donors. In particular, there is one person who has given toys for our annual toy drive in December. We have a Christmas boutique set up for close to 100 children and we have a few things for the mothers. People have been very generous with the children.”

For more information about Casa Cornelia, to volunteer, or to make a donation contact Executive Director Carmen Chavez. The non-profit’s phone number is 619-231-7788 and the website is

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