Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, September 1, 2017

A source of light, hope in ‘the dark place’

Ortiz helps the powerless find hope in American legal system

Legal assistant Sheila Ortiz has a reputation for making people cry. Her ability is reportedly so profound it takes only moments for her to draw tears.

The lawyer for which Ortiz works at Grant Konvalinka & Harrison, immigration attorney Brittany Thomas, has witnessed her powers firsthand.

“I once stepped out of a room to make a copy of a work authorization card. I left Sheila there with a client I’d known for several years,” she says. “It was the first time they’d met, and when I came back, the client was crying.”

Although Ortiz’s gift is uncanny, there’s no mystery behind it. “Sheila is respectful and sweet,” Thomas adds. “She has the kind of spirit that opens a person up.”

Ortiz, 38, also has the academic credentials of a therapist. When she was assigned to the immigration department at Grant Konvalinka, Thomas took advantage of Ortiz’s education as well as her innate ability to delicately approach difficult conversations with clients and began using her to take affidavits.

“We have cases involving child rape, domestic violence and murder, so we have to ask people to talk about the worst thing that has happened to them. Sheila is really good at getting those details out of people,” Thomas says.

Attorneys rarely use legal assistants to take affidavits. Thomas says she’s never employed one in that manner. But Ortiz is not inclined to stay within predefined boundaries.

A compassionate heart

The first thing people notice about Ortiz is her constant smile. It reaches clients ahead of her handshake, and sharing it with her coworkers has become part of her daily ritual.

“Every morning, before I sit down in my area, I take the time to greet everybody,” she says. “I walk by everyone’s desk and say, ‘Buenos dias!’”

The smile is there all day, regardless of the horrors a client shares with Ortiz. In those moments, its unwavering nature reflects her determination to remain mentally and emotionally resilient for the people she serves.

“When I dig into the ugly of a matter, it impacts me, especially when it’s a child who’s had a horrible experience,” she acknowledges. “I deal with it by focusing on the positive. I tell the client, ‘You’re here. Let’s work this out.’

“If I go to the dark place where they are, then I won’t be able to help.”

The second thing people notice about Ortiz is her accent, a product of the mountainous regions of Puerto Rico where she lived until she was 8. When she speaks, her voice is laced with the fiery flavors of her culture.

Although Thomas’ immigration clients rarely have trouble identifying Ortiz’s inflection, native Chattanoogans occasionally fail to peg her as Latino. “Some people think I’m Russian when they first meet me,” she says, laughing. “When I tell them I’m not, then they say I must be European.”

Ortiz gives these folks a pass, though, because some people are simply unaware of the diversity of the Latino culture, which spans Latin America and includes many different races and ethnic groups.

Besides, there’s no mistaking Ortiz’s most recognizable characteristic: her heart.

If a single word could come close to describing what lies therein, it would be compassion. But its tapestry is much richer than that. As Ortiz takes affidavits, serves as her firm’s interpreter and helps to prepare clients for interviews, she exhibits a passion for justice, among other qualities.

“I cannot see an injustice and move along like it’s not my business,” she says. “People come to us with their hurdles and their pain, and it’s a privilege to be able to provide them with the guidance of the law and touch them in a nourishing way.”

Just as Ortiz does more than the typical legal assistant, she’s known for going the extra mile for Grant Konvalinka’s clients.

This can be seen in Ortiz’s story about a Spanish-speaking client who lives in Athens. The mother-of-two had experienced a “heartbreaking injustice,” Ortiz explains, but the woman was unable to file a police report because she didn’t speak English. Moreover, as an immigrant, she was afraid of getting into legal trouble.

“She didn’t know she had rights – and that was preventing us from helping her,” Ortiz recalls.

One day, Ortiz took the matter into her own hands. “I told Brittany, ‘I don’t care if you don’t pay me, I don’t care if I have to take PTO (personal time), I have to help her,’” she says.

Ortiz drove to Athens, picked her up at her home, took her to the police station and helped her file the report. This started a process that culminated in the woman filing an application for a U visa, a nonimmigrant visa for victims of crimes who have suffered substantial abuse and are willing to assist law enforcement and government officials in the investigation or prosecution of the criminal activity.

Ortiz is waiting with her, eager for an answer.

Ever positive, she says she knows U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will approve the woman’s application. When that happens, Ortiz will celebrate, as she has many times during her three years of working at Grant Konvalinka.

“We celebrate approvals because of what they mean for our clients,” she says. “It opens up a new life for them and keeps them safe. They won’t have to go to a place where their lives will be threatened or they might be trafficked.”

While Ortiz’s compassion for the clients she serves at Grant Konvalinka runs deep, it doesn’t end there. Rather, it extends to the community in which she has made her home and especially to the Latino people, with whom she shares a language and a culture.

Latino leader

Although Ortiz moved to the U.S. when she was 8, she’s always had an affinity for her native culture. Growing up, her mother steeped her in the traditions of their people. As an adult, Ortiz earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees in Puerto Rico.

Knowing this and believing Ortiz had even more to offer others, Thomas introduced her to La Paz Chattanooga, a nonprofit that serves the local Latino community. (Thomas is a member of the organization’s board.)

Ortiz took to the group like a fish to water. She began attending La Paz events and in time became part of a coalition within the organization called Unidos Contigo, which means, “united with you.”

Formed in response to fears that have cropped up among immigrants, Unidos Contigo works to alleviate concerns and educate people who have misunderstandings. In the words of a local pastor who appears in a video detailing the mission of the coalition, its goal is to deliver a message of peace and hope to the immigrant community.

As a volunteer member of Unidos Contigo, Ortiz assisted with the coalition’s community information sessions and video outreach efforts. Patrick Miles, La Paz’s director of community engagement, says her “warmth and friendliness helped to establish a trustworthy atmosphere of inclusion and support.”

As Ortiz became more widely known within the local Latino community, the pastors at area Hispanic churches began asking her to make presentations on sensitive topics they didn’t feel qualified to address. These included child abuse, domestic violence and how churches can welcome and support children with autism and their families. Ortiz enthusiastically agreed to their requests.

La Paz took note of Ortiz’s efforts, and when Thomas nominated her for a 2017 Latino Leadership Award, she made the cut. Selected for her efforts as a legal assistant at Grant Konvalinka and as a volunteer member of Unidos Contigo, Ortiz will be one of ten local Latinos honored during a ceremony Monday, Sept. 18 at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

Ortiz is being humble about the recognition. “No matter where you are in life, your purpose is to serve,” she says.

Despite her unassuming nature, Ortiz can be proud of what she’s accomplishing, just as she’s proud of the heritage her mother passed down to her.

An independent soul

When Ortiz first stepped onto U.S. soil after her parents divorced, she was in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Two years later, her mother, Norma Utz, moved everyone to Tampa.

Although Utz raised her three children in America, she taught them the traditions and cultures of their people. She insisted Ortiz and her son and daughter from her second marriage speak Spanish at home, in church and elsewhere (the only place Ortiz spoke English was at school); she played with her children and taught them Puerto Rican songs; and she passed on her faith in God.

Utz also taught Ortiz how to cook. By eight years old, Ortiz could cover a table with bowls and plates of rice, beans, meat, salad and more.

Teaching Ortiz to cook was part of how Utz passed on the values of the Puerto Rican woman – not in the sense that women in that culture are expected to cook but that they are raised to be self-sufficient.

“My mother taught me to press in and better myself,” Ortiz recalls. “She raised me to not be dependent on a man but to be able to sustain myself.”

The self-determining spirit Utz had nurtured in her daughter led Ortiz to return to the country of her birth for college. Not only did she want to embrace her native country, school was cheaper there.

Also, Ortiz had spent her formative years in private school, which she likens to a fish tank that offers a limited, enclosed environment, and she was seeking a broader experience that would prepare her for a career helping people from a variety of backgrounds.

“I didn’t think I would find that if I stayed in a fish tank,” Ortiz says.

As Ortiz began taking classes at the University of Puerto Rico, she was set on becoming a pediatrician. She didn’t like the labs, though, so she switched to psychology.

“I wanted to do something that would allow me to help the entire family,” Ortiz says.

Ortiz fell in love with the topic, and upon graduation took a job as a service coordinator in the early intervention division of a pediatric center. There, she established treatment plans for families with children born with issues that would prevent them from having a typical life, counseled the parents and directed them to the services they needed.

Ortiz loved the work, especially providing therapy to overwhelmed parents. “It was a privilege to have people open their private doors to me and to be part of the endeavor to help them understand their situation and how it could become better.”

In 2007, Ortiz left the pediatric center and turned her attention to earning her master’s degree. While attending classes at the University of El Turabo, her independent nature was tested when she was diagnosed with cancer.

Although her treatment was a success, it depleted Ortiz’s funds and forced her to find work outside her field of study. She landed a job as a service assistant at Cooperativa de Seguros Múltiples, a major Puerto Rican insurance provider. From there, she worked her way up to underwriter.

Ortiz stayed with the company after she graduated in 2011, serving on a project that brought services to hurricane victims.

Eventually, however, she returned to the U.S. to improve her financial standing.

“I lived next to the beach. Going to sleep to the sound of the ocean was magical. And I loved coming home from work, changing my clothes and going for a swim,” Ortiz says. “But although my country is beautiful, the economy is horrible.”

Ortiz, whose memory holds the minutest details, returned to the U.S. on Oct. 26, 2013. She chose to live in Chattanooga to be close to her mother and sister – and because taxes were cheaper than in Florida, where her brother lives.

Ortiz intended to earn her doctorate but chose to go to work instead. After a brief stint at Covenant Transport, she arrived at Grant Konvalinka via a temporary agency. Her first day was Sept. 26, 2014.

Ortiz’s first assignment involved working for John Konvalinka himself. From there, she transferred to David Elliott, who supervised her on immigration matters as she also provided support for the real estate and litigation departments. In time, Ortiz was placed under the sole auspices of Thomas, who says she would not let Ortiz go should another transfer be initiated.

It’s unlikely anyone at Grant Konvalinka would suggest such a move. Ortiz is in her element and filling a vital role at the firm as its only interpreter. Although she’s not working in her field of study, she pursues her calling in psychology every day as she speaks the words and expresses the sympathy, kindness and understanding that so easily draws tears from the eyes of the people she serves.

Love for life

Ortiz might not be living next to the beach anymore but her home in Ooltewah does place her close to nature. As someone who enjoys hiking and riding her bike, this suits her well.

Ortiz’s zest for life knows few boundaries. An avid reader, she’s currently devouring “Waking Up White” which chronicles author Debby Irving’s experiences of being an American white woman and coming to terms with the complexity of race in the U.S. “She describes the beauty of embracing diversity so well,” Ortiz says.

Ortiz is also a foodie who enjoys eating healthy at local restaurants. She still loves to cook, too. “It’s one of my favorite things do to,” she adds. “I mean business when I cook.”

Ortiz also enjoys spending time with her family, which locally consists of her mother, stepfather, sister, nephews and nieces.

It does not, however, include a husband or children – and that also suits her well. “I’m happy being on my own,” she says, laughing.

Ortiz does have a furry child – a Miniature Schnauzer named Italia. Like Ortiz, she has a mind of her own.

Although Ortiz’s life is largely about serving others, she says she believes she’s capable of doing more. Like the girl who decided to leap from the fish tank and return to her native country for college, she wants to pursue broader experiences so she can reach even more people in their place of need. And like Irving, she wants to embrace diversity so she can better serve the clients she encounters.

“The richest person is not the one with the most money but the one who’s the most emotionally mature, who can have a relationship with everybody,” Ortiz says.

 “I work toward that richness every day.”