Posted: May 24, 2012 at 11:14 AM [May 24, 2012]
It can be very easy to brush off a simple thank you from a stranger. Maybe you held the elevator door for them, or picked up groceries that fell from a bag. “Sure thing” or, “Hey no problem.” What do you say in response to the heartfelt thanks and sometimes tears of gratitude from the father of four whom you just helped apply for food stamps to try and relieve some of the stress about where his family’s next meal is coming from? Or the young immigrant couple with their 7 month old baby that are new to Michigan and have no friends, family and rely on inconsistent low-wage positions?
I can tell you that it is gut wrenching to see the familiar look of embarrassment and shame in someone’s eyes. We all like to think that we won’t get sick, or lose our job, or just hit a really bad streak of luck that leaves you homeless, and sometimes friendless, but it happens all too often. The only piece of comfort I can take is that a position like mine has been created, and there are caring organizations like the United Way and Food Gatherers to help individuals through these hardships.
I’m one of the 33 AmeriCorps members throughout the state that have undergone training for the MiBridges online benefit system as part of Michigan Benefits Access. This initiative was created by the Michigan Association of United Ways to address these problems throughout the state of Michigan by making it easier and less intimidating to apply for benefits. No longer do you need to wait in long lines at the DHS (Department of Human Services) office or spend hours on the phone waiting to contact someone about a case. Everyone now has the ability to create an account and apply for any of the five benefits online: food stamps, Medicaid, child care, cash assistance, and state emergency relief. This can be done in the comfort of your own home, on a computer in the library, with a Patient Advocate, or during an appointment with a Community Resource Navigator like me.
Aside from helping people in our community, the goal of this program is to create awareness of this system, and educate staff and lay people alike as to what benefits are available, and how to easily gain access or information about them. Correspondence from caseworker to client can be done online, through email or regular post, or even via text message. Individuals and client households can also monitor and adjust their profile once an account is created, and soon they will be able to renew benefits online. In the technologically driven age we live in, this initiative is really trying to reach all parts of the state by developing a specific branch of AmeriCorps members dedicated to simplifying the application process.
On a very basic level, my job is to go throughout the community and teach people how to navigate a website. But it’s more than that, I’m asking people to share with me details about their income, family situation, health problems, and overall ability to provide for their family. Not too many of us like to think that the 48103-08 area codes are susceptible to poverty and homelessness, but it is impossible to ignore. If there’s anything I struggle with, it is how to find words to express my own gratitude to the clients I meet with for divulging the more intimate details of their life to me.
On a deeper level, this is a very personal position that can be very stressful, but incredibly gratifying. Not only do I get the chance to work in an office and warehouse full of fun loving, caring and conscious people, but I get to learn so much every day. I am constantly contacting other people in the community I can work with, whether that is a liaison with the Department of Human Services, the director of a shelter, or volunteers at a food kitchen. The following is an excerpt from an email I received from one of my clients the other day, and I think it’s safe to say that this is what makes my job special:
Hi, how are you? It couldn’t have been more than 30 minutes after our interview, and I received a call from a case worker in Grand Rapids. Temporary Approval, and I have to copy or scan requested documents. You and your associates have made a very difficult time in my life a little better.
I would like to encourage anyone to contact me if they have questions about how MiBridges works. You can email me at Kelsey@foodgatherers.org, or check out the website at www.michigan.gov/mibridges.
Kelsey Cauley is the AmeriCorps Member – Community Resource Navigator working with Food Gatherers. This post was originally featured on the Food Gatherers blog.