Nan Heald, longtime director of Pine Tree Legal Assistance, dies

Nan Heald, who spent decades working to provide essential legal services to Maine’s poor and overcome systemic barriers to justice, has died.

Heald was Executive Director of Pine Tree Legal Assistance for over 30 years. The nonprofit organization provides civil legal aid to many people, including those at risk of foreclosure or eviction, domestic violence survivors, farm workers, veterans, and Indigenous peoples. In 2020, Pine Tree worked on over 6,300 cases affecting over 15,000 people.

Nan Heald

Pine Tree Legal announced Heald’s death but did not give his age. Board Chairman Dan Emery said Heald was surrounded by family and friends when she died Thursday from complications related to cancer.

“Most importantly, Nan cared,” Emery said. “His long and accomplished career comes down to one thing: helping people. His many skills were means to that end. I don’t think the awards she won mean as much to her as the wins of Pine Tree customers who had nowhere to go. She was a joy and an inspiration to work with, and we will be guided by her example.

Heald co-wrote a Maine Voices column in 2017 that spoke of his mission: “When we say the Pledge of Allegiance, we end with ‘justice for all.’ We need civil legal aid programs like Pine Tree Legal Assistance to ensure that Maine delivers justice to everyone, not just those who can afford it.

Heald grew up in Oquossoc in the mountains of western Maine. She graduated from Smith College in 1977 and George Washington University Law School in 1980. She worked for the federal government and in private practice for five years, joining Pine Tree Legal Assistance in 1985. Her primary responsibility was to correct the exclusion from the Aroostook Band. of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980. This change was ultimately achieved through federal legislation.

In 1990, she became general manager of the association. Heald saw technology as a way to increase access to legal aid, and the organization created, a website with self-help resources, in 1996. It was the first country’s legal aid website to include self-help resources – and they’re still available free of charge to Mainers who need answers to a wide range of questions, including essential information about housing, benefits public authorities and access to courts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Heald also oversaw new programs that expanded access to legal aid for vulnerable populations. Pine Tree formed Kids Legal, the first and only state bill that focuses on the educational and legal needs of children. He started programs for low-income veterans, including a medical-legal partnership at Togus Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Maine and, a national veterans and military website. Under Heald’s leadership, Pine Tree also expanded support for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault and developed projects including a clinic for low-income taxpayers.

During Heald’s tenure, the nonprofit’s budget grew from $2.8 million to $7 million, increasing its grants and other sources of funding. Pine Tree now has 75 employees, including 47 lawyers and 15 paralegals. It is headquartered in Portland, but has five regional offices across the state.

“Through the creative use of funding opportunities and other leveraged support, his leadership has enabled Pine Tree to strengthen and expand legal services to diverse client populations and into new areas of law, and to make justice more accessible to all Maine residents,” the nonprofit organization said in a press release.

Heald has served on numerous national and state committees and has often been recognized for her work. In 2011, the White House named her a champion for change. In 2015 she won the American Bar Association’s Grassroots Advocacy Award, and in 2018 she became a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation. She has also received honors and awards from the American Civil Liberties Union, Maine Justice Foundation, Maine Veterans Coordinating Committee, and Maine Judicial Branch.

Pine Tree announced last month that Heald would retire this spring. She is survived by her husband, Frank D’Alessandro, her daughter, Bei Heald, her stepchildren Daniel and Katie D’Alessandro and their spouses, and two grandchildren.

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