By Jessica Bliss, The Tennessean
Nashville, TN (AP) – Hernando Chovil sits at a library table surrounded by school work.
With his white ball cap pulled down over his eyes, he writes essays dissecting scene, setting and character prepping for a big test at the end of the month.
It seems like typical student stuff, except for one thing – the cane resting against Chovil’s chair.
Chovil is 75 years old and pursuing his GED.
Even at his age, his commitment to his education remains so strong that when he and his wife were living off just $375 a month – barely affording food and the rent in their public housing unit – he still paid to put gas in his car so he could drive to class at the southeast branch of the Nashville Public Library twice a week.
The situation is less dire now, thanks to Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee, which stepped in to fight for Chovil when a Social Security snafu wrongly reduced his monthly payment and left him struggling. He worked for months on his own to correct the error, with countless communications sent back and forth between the agency and himself. But, in the end, he needed someone to fight for him.
Now, he works toward his degree with a stronger motivation than before – to pay forward the goodwill afforded to him in a time of great need.
A man with short, white hair, glasses and age spots on his careworn face, Chovil has already lived a full life.
“The doors have always been open to me,’’ Chovil said in Spanish, which Legal Aid office manager Bill Flores translated as Chovil spoke on a recent afternoon.
Chovil has been married more than 50 years. He has six children and one granddaughter. He worked happily as an accountant in his native Colombia until 10 years ago, when he moved to the United States to be nearer to a couple of his children and, as so many hope to do, find “a new way of life.’’
He lived first up north, where he could be close to his son. He worked real estate. Then the bubble popped. And he got sick. Really sick. Colon and liver cancer.
He moved to Tennessee – where his daughter and her husband, a doctor at Vanderbilt, lived – to get medical care.
When he recovered, though still dealing with the disabilities of age in his legs and with arthritis, he got a new job working in human resources. Three years ago, he also became a U.S. citizen as he settled permanently in Nashville. He supported his wife and sent money back home to help his other children when he could.
But when Chovil’s position was terminated in 2015, he couldn’t find another job. To help fill in the gaps of lost paychecks, he received Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a Federal income supplement program funded by general tax revenues and designed to aid aged, blind and disabled people who have little or no income. Chovil was entitled to receive $733 in SSI per month, Legal Aid attorney Emma Sholl said.
It provided cash to meet basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter. But Chovil wasn’t satisfied. Though he could have retired and lived off the money, he wanted to do more. He was interested in obtaining his CPA certification and opening an office here where he could use his professional accounting skills from Colombia and help others like him in the United States.
“He’s definitely a life-long learner,’’ Sholl said.
So, with just enough benefit money to support his family, he went back to school to pursue his GED, which was a prerequisite needed to get his CPA certification in the United States.
While he learned, he also saved his money. But then came the snafu. For reasons that are unclear, the Social Security Administration believed Chovil got a new job. When a person is employed, their monthly Social Security benefits decrease based on their income. Because the Social Security agency thought Chovil was working again, it said he was only entitled to $449.25 per month, Sholl said.
The agency also believed it had overpaid him the previous months and was due a balance of $2,450.25, Sholl said. Which meant a deduction of $73.30 out of Chovil’s check each month until the debt was satisfied.
So, beginning in April 2016, Chovil – out of work and in school trying to earn his GED – began receiving only $375.95 a month in Social Security.
It was the only source of income for he and his wife.
“We had many difficulties during this time,’’ Chovil said.
Chovil could barely afford to feed himself or buy basic over-the-counter medications for his wife. They received food stamps and were lucky enough to have the rent in their public housing apartment reduced to $25 a month.
Only Chovil’s meticulous record keeping and strict budgeting kept him fed and with a roof over his head. He lived that way for months – struggling to find bilingual assistance that could help him fix the error and restore his payments to the proper amount.
Then, Legal Aid came to his aid. The diligent documentation he learned as an accountant also provided everything the organization needed to help him.
The day Chovil walked into the Legal Aid’s office in downtown Nashville, Flores was one of the first to speak with him. He knew immediately he wanted to get the man help. So he knocked on Sholl’s door.
Social Security cases are not normally the type that Sholl handles, but Chovil brought in “ledgers of very precise budgets and letters from Social Security,’’ Sholl said. Much of the documentation she would need to support his case.
And, she added, it was clear he had tried to find a solution himself and that it was this was a last resort for him to be there.
“He’s really charming,’’ Sholl said. “A complete gentleman. His whole demeanor is being very humble in asking for help. He doesn’t feel entitled.
“It was obviously a pretty desperate situation. One he had tried to fix himself for many, many months.’’
Legal Aid’s role is to stand up for people like Chovil and be their voice. Approximately 5 to 7 percent of Legal Aid’s clients are non-English speakers, and the language barrier can be one of the biggest challenges in providing them assistance.
But, with Flores working as the office manager and ready to help with translation, Sholl could take on the case.
She submitted a Request for Reconsideration in May of last year. The Social Security agency took several months to process the request, Sholl said, but beginning in August 2016, it fixed the monthly income amount and again started paying Chovil $733 a month.
However, it still had the overpayment wrong, Sholl said.
She submitted a second Request for Reconsideration in August and argued that there was no longer an overpayment. and in fact, there was an underpayment. The agency owed Chovil $1,889.45 for all of the months it paid him less than he was owed because it thought he was working, she said.
Ultimately, the agency agreed and Chovil received $1,889.45 in December. In addition, Chovil’s wife – who now also has her citizenship – was eligible for benefits. With Legal Aid helping the process, the couple’s payments increased to $1,100 a month.
A noted boost from the $375.95 they received just four months earlier.
“Angels come to earth to help people,’’ Chovil said. “Legal Aid is like that.’’
Now, with his financial situation repaired, Chovil has the financial security to continue to pursue his education without worry.
He is just two exams shy of getting his GED. Already he has passed science, math and social science. He expects to complete reading and writing at the end of the month. When he does, he said, he will get a bachelor’s through the University of Tennessee and pursue his CPA.
If he gets another job, Chovil’s benefits will decrease again. He could choose simply to live off the checks he receives in retirement. But he doesn’t want to – his motives are to help others like him, who may need support in navigating a new life in America.
“A lot of people need help,’’ he said, his wrinkled-yet-still-expressive hands waving through the air as he talked about his passion. “I want to take the example of how I was treated and impress that on others that people care.’’