Helping hands

Elaine Sit has been honored for her work in Chicago’s Chinese American community

Elaine Sit has been honored for her work in Chicago’s Chinese American community - Photo by Rena Naltsas
By Adrianna Pitrelli
Chicago Lawyer correpondent

Elaine Sit isn’t just an attorney.

She’s a community woman, a volunteer, a mentor. 

“The law students and some of the other lawyers will call me Auntie Elaine,” she said. “Because I know how to make people feel comfortable so they can ask me questions and come to me for advice.”

She was one of the recipients of the Distinguished Service Award from Chicago Volunteer Legal Services for her “ability to communicate with the client in her own language, her understanding of the woman’s cultural background and her obvious empathy” which allowed her to help a Cantonese-speaking senior whose mental health issues prevented her from cooperating with her pro bono attorney in an eviction case.

From taking the hours needed to explain the case, to holding the woman’s hand in court, Sit was able to develop a trust that helped the woman keep her home.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Chicago Lawyer: You do a variety of work in the community — both for the elderly and college students. Talk to me about that.

Sit: Last year, I got an award because I’m such a good mentor for the young lawyers who are new to volunteer work or new to law school and are from China. It takes them a while to know what’s going on in Chicago. They can’t get accepted without some English.

There are a lot of them that do an immersion into English and improve their conversational skills as well as their writing skills. But it is stressful. It takes a lot of resources for a young Chinese person to go to law school in the United States.

The families make huge sacrifices and so do the students. But I help them make that transition easier. I am very fond of working with the young people, especially young women. Young people definitely need a mentor they can go to about everything.

I also represent petitioners seeking guardianship of their loved ones. Sometimes the petitioner is a hospital. Say that person has no known relatives and the patient doesn’t have the capacity to assist when it’s time to discharge or transfer.

The hospital will say that this person needs a guardian. And then we file for a temporary guardianship because this person needs to be transferred sooner rather than later or this person needs a procedure. Then I will take the case. 

CL: What led you to do this type of work? 

Sit: I was taking care of my father who was really sick so I was not practicing. But I also needed a hobby. So I started doing volunteer work with the Chinese American bar. I could go to meetings in the afternoon and volunteer at different hours because I didn’t have a normal job. 

So once he died and I started doing more case work, I loved to work with the older generation. It’s what I had been doing so I wanted to help them as much as I could. People need guardians because they don’t have the capacity to understand certain things or make informed decisions about their medical care. So I help them get that ability from others. 

CL: What is the most beneficial part of the work you do?

Sit: This really has given me a livelihood. It’s what I love to do each and every day. Working with the older people has helped me realize that any problems or hardships that I felt like I had experienced in my adult life weren’t really problems or hardships. Nothing compared to what some of these families and individuals have been going through. 

My favorite person, there was this lady who was in a wheelchair, her hands were cramped, so she couldn’t hold a pencil. It was a complex guardianship. But she came back to get help to fill out paperwork two or three times and we got it done.

And, you know, she was a beautiful lady. She wasn't bitter about her physical disability. She didn’t have an expectation of entitlement.