Celebrating Laura Dionisio: 2024 Pillars of Change Honoree

For her unwavering creativity and passion in bringing the wonders of STEM to the children at Sarah Burke House, creating a safe and inspiring environment that fosters curiosity and joy.

Laura Dionisio began volunteering at Sanctuary for Families in early 2023 after being encouraged by a friend. The mission of Sanctuary really resonated with Laura, and knowing that she could help provide a safe and fun learning space, she felt drawn to work directly with the children.

Sarah Burke House, Sanctuary’s large transitional shelter, was looking for workshop leaders to provide enriching opportunities for school-age children in their on-site Afterschool Program. Laura was onboarded as a volunteer and connected to the Children and Family Services Program team. For over a year, Laura has been creating and leading monthly STEM workshops. Laura plans the activities, makes a flier to hang at the shelter, teaches a fun science lesson, and brings all of the necessary materials to create a STEM project.

To date, the children have made rubberband-propelled cars, created rollercoasters out of paper and marbles, built towers using spaghetti and tape, learned about chemical reactions through writing messages using invisible ink, and other fun activities that make learning and STEM fun for the kids!

Heidi Gomez, Program Coordinator, Children and Family Services at Sarah Burke House, says,

“Not only is Laura a passionate and incredible volunteer, she is a woman who currently works in STEM as well. She brings compassion and joy to the program and is a great role model for our students who may want to explore different areas of STEM. One thing that she always leaves behind with us at Sarah Burke House is wonder, curiosity and excitement to try new things!”

Laura shares a couple of favorite memories, “One time a younger child, around 4 years old, joined the STEM workshop for the first time. One of the older girls who had been to the STEM workshop a few times was explaining to the younger one that ‘Miss Laura is an engineer, and she does fun science stuff with us!’ That really warmed my heart”.

“Every time I go to the classroom and see the different themed art work they do like for Black History month or women’s history month I’m reminded of how much the staff care for these kids. There’s such positivity and encouragement despite the situation the kids were previously living in. Many times, I’ve seen the kids write encouraging words on the white board and I’m humbled by it every time. It reminds me to think positively even on ‘bad” days.'” — Laura

It is evident that Laura has given the children and grown-ups something to look forward to each month. The staff shares that Laura inquires about other themes or events happening at the residence so she can connect her plans to other lessons or seasonal fun taking place. The thought and time Laura puts into her volunteering goes far beyond her hour-long sessions. It’s abundantly clear from the questions and mentions of her name that she has left a lasting impression on the youngest residents of Sarah Burke House that will live on long after they have left the shelter; one of hopefully many positive memories created during an otherwise difficult time of transition in their young lives.

Flyers created by Laura for her workshops:

“One of the activities she brought was to make our own marble run/roller coaster. There were all girls that day of various patience eves and she just let them explore and figure out how they wanted it to fit together. It was magical to see how each of them pitched in and how Laura guided them to work together. During the build, one of the girls wrote ‘girls work’ for the name of the building company.” 

To learn more about Laura and her work, please join us on April 18th from 6:00-8:00 PM at Pillars of Change.


Celebrating Angela Ayora: 2024 Pillars of Change Honoree

For her exceptional dedication, unwavering commitment to creating safe spaces, compassionate counseling, and significant contributions to the Children and Family Services Programs.

Angela’s journey with Sanctuary for Families began in the fall of 2023, guided by her Internship advisor, who recommended the organization for her required field placement as part of her Master of Social Work degree. Drawn to Sanctuary for their commendable work aiding survivors of gender-based violence, Angela was eager to contribute her skills and learn more about the important mission. Currently serving as a Clinical Social Work Intern within the Children and Family Services Program, Angela manages a caseload, offering trauma-informed counseling services on a weekly basis. Additionally, she plays a key role in facilitating the Weyerhauser workshops for mothers of male-identifying children and co-facilitates a Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Club catering to children ages 8-12.

Angela shares,

“I believe that the work the agency does has a lasting impact. While I am just a part of a whole, I provide my clients with a safe space where they can feel comfortable and safe to share their stories. My goal is to be there for them, providing support and care throughout their healing journey.”

A particularly memorable moment for Angela was when a client expressed feeling safe and secure within the office environment. This validation underscores Angela’s commitment to creating a nurturing space for all her clients.

Angela’s contributions extend beyond her direct interactions with clients and far beyond the requirements of her internship placement. She has been instrumental in collaborating with various stakeholders, including family members, legal entities, schools, and other systems involved in a family’s life. Her dedication is further exemplified by her proactive approach to attending additional trainings and meetings, even on non-assigned days, showcasing her eagerness to learn and grow.

Katherine Roman, Angela’s supervisor, speaks highly of her work ethic and personal qualities, which include compassion, humility, humor, curiosity, and self-discipline. Angela’s calm demeanor in crisis situations and her ability to forge positive relationships with clients and staff stand out as her defining traits.

One of Angela’s most significant contributions was highlighted by a parent who shared that, due to Angela’s compassionate and dedicated counseling, their child’s frequent nightmares had ceased, and the child appeared visibly happier. Angela’s SEL group has also been a success among the children, offering them a platform to learn and bond over group activities.

Angela’s time at Sanctuary for Families will soon end with her upcoming graduation. The agency recognizes her invaluable contributions and hopes to retain her talent in the future. Her dedication, passion, and positive impact on the families she has worked with make her a deserving Pillars of Change honoree.

In conclusion, Angela’s journey at Sanctuary has been marked by her genuine desire to make a difference. From creating safe spaces for the youngest survivors to actively participating in workshops and group sessions, Angela’s impact resonates deeply with everyone she encounters. As supervisor Katherine Roman fondly recalls, their supervisory meetings, affectionately termed “spilling the tea,” will be dearly missed. Angela’s presence has undeniably enriched the lives of Sanctuary staff and clients alike, and her future in the field of social work will undoubtedly continue to change lives.

To learn more about Angela and her work, please join us on April 18th from 6:00-8:00 PM at Pillars of Change.


Sanctuary Files Brief to SCOTUS Supporting the Right to Emergency Abortion Care

Sanctuary filed an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in the consolidated cases Idaho v. United States and Moyle v. United States in support of reproductive care access.

Yesterday, Sanctuary filed an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in the consolidated cases Idaho v. United States and Moyle v. United States in support of reproductive care access. We argued that by requiring pregnant patients to incur serious but preventable harms or to suffer until their medical conditions become life-threatening, Idaho’s abortion ban amounts to gender-based violence. 

Joined by a coalition of 16 organizations advocating on behalf of survivors, our brief urges the Court to consider the compounding effect of the harms caused by abortion bans that conflict with EMTALA* for pregnant patients who arrive at the emergency department with emergency medical conditions resulting from physical abuse.

Homicide is the leading cause of death for pregnant women in the United States. The Court should not permit states to further endanger pregnant women’s lives and empower their abusers by denying stabilizing abortion care in the narrow but critical circumstances in which EMTALA requires it to prevent the patient’s death or serious harm to her health.

We want to thank the National Women’s Law Center for coordinating this broader effort in support of reproductive justice and our partners at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP for authoring this brief on our behalf. We also want to recognize the remarkable leadership of Sanctuary’s Reproductive Rights Advocacy Sub-Committee, co-chaired by Family Law Project and Policy Director Luba Reife and Senior Staff Attorney Anne Glatz.

Click here to read the full amicus brief. 

*The Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA) requires hospitals with emergency departments to provide a medical screening examination to any individual who comes to the emergency department and requests such an examination, and prohibits hospitals with emergency departments from refusing to examine or treat individuals with an emergency medical condition.

Sanctuary Pro Bono Partner Spotlight: Latham & Watkins

In a unique collaboration, a London-based team of Latham & Watkins attorneys joined forces with Sanctuary to represent a domestic violence survivor in her asylum application.

Sanctuary for Families’ Pro Bono Project has the honor of working with hundreds of extremely dedicated and expert pro bono attorneys annually. As part of our Pro Bono Spotlight, we highlight some of the great work done by Sanctuary pro bono attorneys!

*Please note that this blog contains descriptions of stalking and physical and sexual abuse that could be triggering*

Latham & Watkins Advocates Secure Asylum Victory for Domestic Violence Survivor

Sanctuary for Families is thrilled to highlight the outstanding work of a London-based team of attorneys from Latham & Watkins comprised of partner Shawn Anderson and associates Oscar Lopez, Laurie Tomassian, Laura Harper, Heri Ali Mwapachu, and Gabriela Barriuso Clark. In a unique collaboration, this team joined forces with Sanctuary to represent a domestic violence survivor in her asylum application. By working closely with the client and witnesses via Zoom, the Latham team effectively built a strong client relationship and drafted highly compelling affidavits and supporting declarations, while the Sanctuary team contributed to other supporting documents and to trial appearances. This creative approach ensured full representation and, ultimately, an asylum grant to a survivor who had been living in danger for years.

Sanctuary first connected with “Michelle,” a survivor of severe domestic violence from Ecuador, in January 2023 through a partnership with a community-based organization. Michelle was in her thirties at the time and had survived emotional, verbal, and physical abuse from childhood at the hands of multiple family members and intimate partners before the abuse culminated in her relationship with “Franco.” The abuse she suffered from Franco put Michelle at a significantly high risk of femicide at the hands of her abuser. Under Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell’s widely used Danger Assessment, an escalation of violence, threats of murder, possession of weapons, sexual assault, violent jealousy, and control are all indicators of an increased risk of lethality. All of those factors were present here. Despite Michelle’s multiple relocations to escape him, Franco terrorized Michelle for five years by doggedly stalking, kidnapping, and assaulting her, holding Michelle hostage for periods ranging from days to up to a month. This terrible abuse culminated when Franco stabbed Michelle and assaulted her in front of their young daughter. The incident made it clear to Michelle that she and her daughter had to flee her home country to save her life.

Upon her arrival in the United States, Michelle was immediately placed in removal proceedings in Immigration Court in New York. Her proceedings moved relatively quickly: the Immigration Judge told her to file her Form I-589 Application for Asylum in short order and then gave her a fast-approaching date for her Merits Hearing. Sanctuary helped Michelle file her Form I-589 pro se. However, given the high caseload of immigration clients that the team was already serving, as well as the tight turnaround, they did not have the capacity to fully represent Michelle and prepare all her asylum-supporting evidence before the Merits Hearing. Thankfully, Latham volunteered to support Sanctuary and Michelle and help prepare her for the Hearing.

With Latham’s significant support, Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project (IIP) could commit to representing Michelle in Immigration Court. The London-based team of associates Oscar Lopez, Laurie Tomassian, Laura Harper, Heri Ali Mwapachu, and Gabriela Barriuso Clark, under the supervision of partner Shawn Anderson, worked closely with Michelle to complete a comprehensive client affidavit in support of her asylum application, as well as to prepare other supporting evidence. Critically, the team also met with three fact witnesses, including Michelle’s psychologist from the DV shelter and her attorney in Ecuador, to obtain supporting declarations. IIP Senior Staff Attorney Daria Campion, one of the case supervisors, notes, “I didn’t even realize this until much later, but due to the time difference between London and Ecuador, the calls were conducted by the team at 11 PM their time!” Nevertheless, the trauma-informed team was able to form a strong bond with the client due to the sensitivity with which they approached their interviews. IIP Co-Deputy Director Deirdre Stradone adds of the successful partnership, “Given the tight turnaround, we wouldn’t have been able to compile this packet ourselves in time. Dividing tasks between ourselves and the Latham team was critical.”

The declarations drafted by the Latham team not only described the horrific abuse Michelle had suffered but also detailed how authorities were unable or unwilling to protect her. They pointed to the numerous incidents of reported domestic violence that preceded the final attack on Michelle. Time and time again, Michelle had been disregarded or even blamed for the pattern of abuse, while Franco had been released from jail on account of a “lack of evidence”— even on occasions in which Michelle had been hospitalized or suffered visible physical injuries.

While the Latham team diligently worked on these declarations, the Sanctuary supervisors worked on compiling the psychological evaluation, expert declaration, legal brief, and country conditions needed for the Merits Hearing. The final asylum packet was so compelling that the ICE attorney stipulated to asylum and waived its appeal, meaning that Michelle was not required to testify and re-traumatize herself in court and that the decision of the judge granting asylum was final. “We are so grateful to the Latham team, which was so trauma-informed, helpful, and flexible in its work for Michelle,” Deirdre says, pointing to the team’s constant willingness to jump on Zoom calls with the client at odd hours to locate an interpreter, and to contribute to any part of the case that needed attention.

Deirdre added that members of the U.S. Capital Markets team in Latham’s London office, including some of the same attorneys highlighted here, have continued their work with Sanctuary and are building asylum expertise through collaborative representation of at least five more applicants and several pro se clients.

This case had an incredible outcome for a client who has been living in a state of constant danger and fear for so long: Michelle can now finally begin to plant roots and recover from the years of trauma she endured. Sanctuary is so grateful to Oscar, Laurie, Laura, Heri, Gaby, and Shawn for their dedicated and life-changing advocacy for Michelle.

The Latham team is equally grateful for the opportunity to work on this case alongside Sanctuary:

“It was an honor and privilege to work on this matter with Sanctuary for Families. While it was a difficult case due to the nature of the sensitive and emotional information Michelle shared, her compelling story motivated us to complete the filing as comprehensively as possible to ensure she and her daughter were granted asylum. We are thrilled at the outcome for Michelle and her daughter.”  – Latham & Watkins Team

Sanctuary would be delighted to explore this type of collaboration with other firms. Anyone interested in partnering with Sanctuary for Families to help support one of our asylum cases is welcome to reach out to our Pro Bono Project to discuss opportunities, which include full or partial representation of affirmative and defensive clients, discrete drafting assistance, or hosting an Asylum Pro Se or Pro Se PLUS Clinics. International teams are welcome to volunteer on asylum cases by drafting supplementary materials and interviewing clients and witnesses without attending in-person court appearances.