Army veteran Maria Walker made it through Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, and her mother, Carroll Akinleye, survived years of domestic violence, but when Walker’s half-brother allegedly started using their St Augustine home for activities she did not agree with, the two women were no match for the legal challenges they faced.
Forced to flee the home, they turned to the Veterans Legal Services Unit at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, where attorney Jacalyn Crecelius devised a plan to protect their ownership interest in the property.
After the disappearance more than 35 years ago of Walker’s father, she and her siblings ended up with a shared interest in the family home. To get them to that point, JALA had helped them get a death certificate and go through probate. But now Walker and Akinleye had a new problem.
“We first attempted to buy her brother out of the home, but he refused, so the only option was to request a court-ordered sale of the house,” Crecelius said. “We were in the midst of completing that when her brother finally decided to sell. With that, we found a way to save the house from a forced sale, and she was able to keep a home that had been in their family for generations.”
Crecelius joined JALA in January and recently earned veterans administration accreditation, a qualification that helps ensure claimants have access to responsible and qualified representation on their VA benefits claims.
While VA claims cases are a growing part of her work, Crecelius also handles family, housing and consumer law matters, as well as wills and estates and employment cases.
Family cases – including divorce, custody, child support, paternity, and domestic violence – have made up a third of her work. Just over half of her 157 clients have been women, and she has had clients from all branches of the military.
She gets satisfaction from breaking down issues that her clients could not navigate on their own. “It’s great to be able to guide someone through that who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford legal help,” she said.
Walker and Akinleye say it is hard to express how grateful they are to Crecelius. “She was like a best friend. She walked this journey with us,” Akinleye said.
Walker is looking forward to restoring the house, which was severely damaged by her half-brother and numerous acquaintances of his who came and went from the home while he was in it. “I’m so forever grateful that I’m able to keep my safe place, because my safe haven was the home,” Walker said. “It may be old, but this place is my life, my start before I joined the military, my foundation, my beginning.”
As profound as that sounds, the impact of her experience goes deeper still.
“Jacalyn restored my faith and let me believe again that I matter,” Walker said. “I really thought since I left the military that I didn’t have a place in this world, that I wasn’t needed, because I didn’t have a mission, and now I’ve found hope again.”