Human traffickers often force victims into prostitution, drug use or theft. When survivors escape, their criminal records create barriers that hinder them from rebuilding their lives.

That’s when Lakewood neighbor Natalie Nanasi steps in.

Nanasi is the director of the Judge Elmo B. Hunter Legal Center for Victims of Crimes Against Women at Southern Methodist University.

She supervises law school students who represent survivors of gender-based violence in a broad range of legal matters.

Some of the services they provide include expunging or sealing criminal records from the general public.

For her work, the nonprofit New Friends New Life is honoring Nanasi with a ProtectHER Award at a virtual luncheon Friday.

On receiving an award: I was very surprised and humbled. I didn’t go into this work to win awards, but it was really lovely to get the call. I’m a teacher, and the day-to-day work is being done by my students. In that respect, it feels unfair that I’m being recognized and they’re not. I wouldn’t be getting this if not for their hard work.

On coronavirus: We’re still able to meet with out clients via phone and Zoom. We’re still able to draft petitions. Electronic signatures are a beautiful thing. The courts are still open, and if we have to have a hearing, they’re done virtually. We can still get records. It’s just a little bit slower.

On living in Lakewood: Proximity to SMU is important, but I wanted to live in a neighborhood that felt like a community where there were funky coffee shops and good schools. Lakewood checked every box.

On being a lawyer: My mom says I [always wanted to be a lawyer]. She has a picture I drew when I was 5 that said I wanted to be a lawyer. It’s a good fit for me. [My kids] are in DISD, and it’s hard to teach them at home. I’m an OK lawyer. I’m a really bad second-grade math teacher. I’m glad I found this calling.

On coping: I’ve been doing this work for 15 years, and the way I have been able to sustain this work is that it’s not my job to save people, nor do I have the capacity to do that. Our clients have dealt with so much trauma. You have to recognize that you can’t fix that over the course of one legal case. All you can do is solve the problem that’s in front of you and do your part to make that one part better.

On her legacy: I tell my kids all the time, “There are two things that matter in life. One is that you are kind. Two is that you work hard.” If you do that, everything else is second. I want to be remembered as someone who is kind and worked hard.

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