Friday, July 31, 2009

Life is a highway

I'll take a brief break to tell you a little about my latest project. My materials: maps and stickers. Lots of them.

As you know, I compiled a database of over 320 organizations and agencies throughout our 7-county region that are not currently OBB sites but that, we believe, could make potentially good sites. While part of my assignment is to increase the number of OBB sites in each county, I hope to employ some strategy in my site recruitment.

Most of our current, active sites, are located in urban areas of each county, with many of them only a few blocks from each other. This over-saturation of urban OBB sites tends to be particularly prevalent in Northeast Ohio. Here in Southwest Ohio, we have also found that with so few local, rural OBB sites, many rural families and individuals are not being served.

Last week at community training orientation, Sam Flores, a VISTA from the Second Harvest Foodbank of North Central Ohio, told me about a project that she has been working on to address over-saturation issues that involves mapping all OBB sites. She tipped me off to obtain maps from county engineers and to create Google maps to get a better idea of where our current sites are located and where we really need more sites. I ordered [free] maps from each of the seven counties in my region and over the past two days, I have been working on plotting each of the current sites on the appropriate county map, as well as creating a Google map of each county's sites.

Here's how I'm doing it:
I type in the address of the site from our spreadsheet into Google maps. I save the spot on the map, then find it on my paper map, where I place the appropriate sticker to represent which type of site it is.

A green star sticker denotes an active OBB site, while a green star with a black dot denotes an active site that is open to the public. (One concern among Regional Coordinators and VISTAs around the state is that too many sites serve only their own clients and are not open to the general public. While the number of OBB sites may be high in an area, that number can be deceiving if the general public can not access any of those sites. It's good to have an accurate depiction of the sites' policy.)

So far I have only plotted 48 current, active sites (green star, green star/black dot) for Butler, Warren, and Montgomery counties. I'll continue working on plotting the remaining counties' current sites, before moving on to the potential sites in the database. I imagine a gold star will denote a potential OBB site that is currently partnered with Shared Harvest, and a blue star will denote a potential OBB site that is not currently affiliated with the foodbank. I might also use red or silver stars to show where we can access computer labs for trainings or meeting rooms for presentations.

So thanks, Sam, for the great idea--not only are we able to get a better picture of the sites in each county, but I am learning a lot more about the region without having to leave the office!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Say cheese!

Check out this good-looking bunch of VISTAs! This photo was taken on the last day of our Community Trainer Orientation in Columbus last week.

In this photo: Savannah Turner, Clintonville-Beechwold CRC; Kaitlyn Baker, Shared Harvest Foodbank; Alex Ives, Wilmington OBB Direct Service Office; Annen Stuckert, Wilmington OBB Direct Service Office; Sarah Grace Harpster, Lutheran Social Services of NWO; Robert Fellows, Clark County Habitat for Humanity; Leslie Liedtke, United Way of Coshocton County; Tara Pavlovcak, Cleveland Foodbank: Ashtabula; Patricia Russo, Second Harvest Foodbank of Mahoning Valley; Zach Rinker, Second Harvest Foodbank of CCL; Sharon Loukas, West Ohio Food Bank; Shelby Edwards, United Way of Hancock County; Michelle Lydenberg, Free Store Foodbank; Samantha Flores, Second Harvest Foodbank of North Central Ohio; Joree Jacobs, Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank; Danielle Gray, Senior Community Service Employment Program; Robin Stears, Girard Multi-Generational Center

Click for the cheesiest

To all you do-gooders out there,

Go to this site--

Every time you click, Kraft donates 10 boxes of mac 'n cheese to Feeding America. You can only click one time a day (but you can fill out an email form to tell all of your friends about it too!) and the promotion is only going on through 7/31/09, but hey, every click counts! Also, check out the coupons posted for some cheaper cheese of the mac 'n variety.

And this one--

Brush up on your vocabulary, foreign languages, art, and more while also feeding the hungry! For every question you get right, 10 grains of rice will be donated to hungry people around the world.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Look, Ma, no hands!

I am proud to report that my first community training went well today! There were, though, a few mishaps along the way. The road into Xenia is known as route 35, and branches into a business route into downtown Xenia and a separate route that would lead you around the city and further east, closer to Washington Court House. Because my training was at the Jobs and Family Services Office in Xenia, and because the directions didn't specify, I assumed that I should take the business route to my destination. Wrong choice--I couldn't find my final turn anywhere and I only had about 20 minutes until the class was to begin.


A little panicked, I called Meredith and she quickly got me back on track. I eventually arrived to find her standing in line at the front desk of the Greene County Department of Jobs and Family services waiting to be directed to the computer lab. At one point, a caseworker shouted through the Plexiglas window casing to see if any of us had appointments. No one responded, but when she saw our laptops and training materials, she hastily directed us to the media room in a different section of the building. We gladly left the line and ventured to our room, only to find it locked. I returned to the front desk in search of the key, but ended up at the end of the line we had just left. Finally, I caught the eye of another caseworker and secured a key to the room. I also asked that someone come and check on us in a few minutes in case we encountered any other problems. And sure enough, when I unlocked the door, we found: no computers. We opened every door we could find, but ended up with a bunch of open closets and exit routes. Eventually, a woman from the office found us and directed us to the right location--a little lab containing 6 computers.

The computer lab was situated in the middle of offices and cubicles, and it was enclosed only by partitions that didn't quite reach the ceiling. Needless to say, throughout the day we could hear noise from caseworkers processing applications with their clients, and they could hear us. While the computers were nice, a little more privacy would have been ideal. This was Meredith's and my first time using the computer lab, and we agreed that I should continue looking for additional computer labs for future trainings throughout the county. I'm working on it!

The presentation went well--I quickly relaxed and felt my voice lose its quiver a few minutes into the training. I surprised myself with my confidence! But I encountered my next frustration when my trainees began using the computers. Out of my 5 students, one was particularly...methodical...during the first practice scenario. She had only made it through half of the program when everyone else had finished the first scenario. I asked the others to try out some optional scenarios so that the woman could have a chance to catch up. Finally, we couldn't wait any longer and we had to go to lunch. She was close to finishing the scenario, but never made it all the way to the end. Fortunately, she had another chance in the afternoon to complete a full scenario, this time with a partner. We moved quickly through the afternoon, and we even finished 15 minutes ahead of schedule! The participants were surprised to learn that that had been my first training, which was a great feeling to end on.

On my way home, I realized that no matter how prepared I am, I can never anticipate the issues and challenges participants may bring to the class, including a lack of computer knowledge. This year I hope to increase my patience and learn how to better troubleshoot when such issues arise. I also look forward to feeling more comfortable navigating each of the 7 counties in my region--that, or getting a GPS unit!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Training wheels

I'm back from Columbus and I'm taking off the training wheels for my first community training tomorrow in Xenia, Ohio. As you know, the last step of my certification process is to conduct two trainings of my own. Of course, Meredith will be with me, but for the most part, I'll be in charge of the 6-hour class.

I spent the day preparing for my class by gathering 2 training booklets, marketing materials, and practice materials for each of the 5 people in my class. I also entered information into our statewide spreadsheets for the first time. Tomorrow, Suzanna from the OBB state office will access the information I entered and create log-in names and passwords for the people who attend my class. I'm excited to be linked to the other community trainers in the state!

But I'm also getting a little nervous. According to my resume, I am an experienced public speaker, so I should have nothing to worry about. But OBB community trainings last all day, and the information we cover is complicated and extensive. We have applications for at least 22 benefits and programs, and I have to teach all of the new counselors not only how to use the software, but also a little about each of those programs. I'm nervous that I will leave out important information or become so flustered that the class loses confidence in me and the OBB. I know Meredith will be there for back up, and I look forward to learning how I can improve my trainings. But honestly, I have perfectionistic tendencies and just I want to do this right the first time.

I'm going to look through my materials a few more times tonight and practice at least a portion of my presentation. Wish me luck!

Friday, July 24, 2009

A small, committed group of citizens

When I was in high school, I took a personality test in my psychology and art history classes. It told me that I was an introvert. So I was an introvert.

But as I have gotten older (my how 4 years can make a difference), I have found that I have extroverted tendencies in that I am often energized by the presence of people. I have found this to be particularly true when in the presence of VISTAs.

In the past month I have attended two major "trainings" through AmeriCorps*VISTA. The first was my pre-service orientation in Indianapolis where I met new friends from all around the country. I was, and still am, inspired by the talents and passion they bring to their respective projects to eradicate poverty.

Of course, the second was my community trainer orientation this week in Columbus, where I met 16 other OBB community trainers. I already knew two of the trainers (insert a shoutout to Alex and Sam: Holla!) from my PSO in Indianapolis, but the others I was meeting for the first time. And oddly enough, after 3 days I feel a strong connection with all of them--and not because we all have similar assignment descriptions, but because we share a commitment to service and change and equality. In our present society, that can be a rare find.

Any time I meet with other VISTAs there is a sense of belonging and acceptance that I haven't experienced in many other places. With VISTAs you don't have to explain why you have chosen to spend a year in poverty--they already know why. They 'get it.' Instead, we spend our time asking questions, exploring, learning, sharing, laughing. And thank god for the laughter.

Perhaps without even meaning to, they encourage me to grow and "know thyself." They remind me of the idealism that attracted me to this program in the first place. They affirm something I am continually learning--that the true fullness of life doesn't come in money or things accumulated, but comes from my experiences, my contribution, my people.

I am already lucky to have a strong support system of family and friends as I dive into this adventure, and they should not go unacknowledged. But there's something about the knowledge of other VISTAs out there going through the same thing I am--the same daily struggles and successes--that brings me an unshakable feeling of comfort and strength. After spending time with them, I feel recharged and ready to tackle big projects with innovative, creative ideas.

I have a renewed sense of hope that Margaret Mead was right--that yes, "a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Living as a VISTA, part 4

If getting benefits is difficult, I want you to get a glimpse of how frustrating it can be to actually KEEP those benefits once you get them, especially when there are other people in your household to keep track of.

As I mentioned in my previous post, this process has been very invasive and at times, degrading. To make matters worse, I am also on edge that we will lose our benefits due to a misunderstanding or lack of communication from JFS. A few weeks after we got our food stamp card, Taylor got his second job as an ambulette driver and I was about to begin my service with AmeriCorps*VISTA. Our income information had changed, and we knew our benefits would decrease a little bit. We had to have our employers fill out forms to verify those changes. But guess what. Employers have better things to do than fax your measly little form to Jobs and Family Services. While my letter made it (thanks Sarah Brady!), Taylor's did not. There was a lot of confusion, and at the end of the day, we received a letter saying our benefits would be reduced from $367 to $91 a month. The reason: because JFS received no documentation from Taylor's employer, they overestimated Taylor's income, and guessed he was making $1350/month, which was FALSE. You saw that we barely made that much money even with my $835/month included in the total. Our letter told us that if we didn't agree with the decision, we could file an appeal, so we did.

Appeals are heard at state hearings, but they take 8 weeks or longer to happen. We wouldn't lose our benefits while we waited for the hearing, but I really just wanted the issue resolved. I ended up calling my county JFS to sort some of this stuff out, and I think I spent more time on hold than I did speaking with an actual person. Turns out they had a lot of stuff wrong in our file. They had overestimated Taylor's income at both Miami and EMT, Inc. And they tried to say my VISTA income would, in fact, count in our eligibility because I started receiving benefits after I started my service as a VISTA. Lies! We received food stamps one month before my term began. I guess they weren't really reading our file, because they had confused my former employment during my college years with my position with AmeriCorps*VISTA. Whatever.

No matter how patiently I explained and re-explained our situation, the person on the other end of the phone was rude and snappy. By the time I hung up, I was shaky and upset, but I thought we had everything straightened out. I figured our benefits would go back up, but I never received a letter saying so.

Instead, about a week later I got a notice that our food stamps were expiring and we had to reapply.

Now, I should explain that typically people who are working and live in a stable household only have to reapply/recertify every 6 months. It's a routine check to make sure all income and household information is up to date. But at the time that we initially applied, our household was pretty unstable with neither of us working a full time job, so we were scheduled to reapply every 2-3 months. I have requested to have that changed to the 6 month recertification timeline, but I still have to go to this appointment. The time they originally gave me would have been impossible to make (I had an OBB event scheduled the day of my appointment, 8/21) so I rescheduled it to Monday, August 3rd at 8:00am. I will keep you posted.

In the meantime, I am a lucky lady to be serving at Shared Harvest because I have some pretty awesome inside connections. I was complaining to Meredith about this whole thing, and she connected me with one of our Food Stamp Outreach coordinators, who actually used to work at JFS. She gave me some tips, including a direct email address for a woman from Quality Control, and I emailed her the details of my case. The woman researched my file and called me back within hours. I couldn't believe it--she agreed that there were several mistakes on the file and she even found an additional credit we should receive for paying our own air-conditioning costs. She said she believed our benefits should go from the $91/month they had quoted to $244/month, and finally we received a letter detailing that information 2 days later.

To any VISTAs reading this, if you take anything away from this post, let it be this: if you encounter excessive difficulty in explaining your case, ask for someone in Quality Control to review it. Chances are your caseworker will be unfamiliar with the income exclusion thing, even if you bring them a letter from CNCS that explains it. People in Quality Control are thorough and will take the time to really research your "unusual" situation. And remember that if ever you don't agree with a decision, make like a banana and appeal (yuk yuk yuk!)

In all seriousness, I didn't write this post to discourage anyone from applying for public assistance. I just want to shed some light on a system that is often difficult to navigate to give you an idea of what people in poverty, including us VISTAs, are really up against. Chasing up papers and making trips to JFS is exhausting, and can be nearly impossible when you are working full-time. I can count the number of times I have felt like giving up on both hands, maybe even both feet. From what I've heard from our clients and other VISTAs, that frustration, embarrassment, and anxiety is fairly common for many people applying for and receiving benefits. And I think that's a shame.

In the midst of this recession, the demand for public assistance is higher than it has ever been. Unfortunately, more and more caseworkers are being laid off due to budget constraints as we speak. If you are applying for food stamps or any other type of public assistance right now, please try to be as patient as possible. JFS offices are short-staffed and overworked. But don't be afraid to stick up for yourself either. Know your rights and stay organized! In the end, it will be worth it. At least I hope so.

Good luck--I'd love to hear any of your comments and experiences with this kind of stuff.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Living as a VISTA, part 3

Greetings from Columbus! I write this from my *suite* at the Double Tree Hotel in downtown Columbus. I'm here for my Community Trainer orientation through Friday.

The overall goals of the day were to get familiar with the Ohio Benefit Bank and to learn how to counsel clients, both of which I had already completed prior to my arrival today. Excluding the rainy 2+ hour drive from Fairfield, today was pretty relaxing and uneventful. But it did get me thinking about the last installment of my "Living as a VISTA" series on public benefits.

We spent the morning highlighting basic AmeriCorps*VISTA information and paperwork (many of the new OBB VISTAs have not been to their pre-service orientation yet). One of the main messages of the session detailed the importance of all OBB VISTAs--and perhaps all VISTAs in general--applying for food stamps prior to the start of their service.

The reasons for this are two-fold. The first is that because we counsel clients and train other counselors to counsel clients on applying for public benefits, it is a positive learning experience for us to have also gone through the same application process. How can we relate to our clients if we don't know what challenges and frustrations they are facing with their own applications? Makes sense.

The second is for...well...survival. Remember, VISTAs live at the poverty level. We can technically qualify for public assistance based on our living allowance income alone, but the federal government is kinda cool and says that any AmeriCorps member's income is excluded from determining their eligibility for food stamps. In other words, our income counts as $0, which makes for maximum benefits. It's kind of like a "thank you" for serving your country. Neat, huh? Well here's the catch--in order for VISTAs' income to be excluded from their household's eligibility, they have to have been receiving food stamps BEFORE beginning their year of service. Otherwise the full amount of their income will count against them, and they won't receive as much benefits. And let's face it--we all need as much help as we can get.

Meredith told me all of this during my interview on that fateful day in March. I knew I would be applying for food stamps as soon as I graduated from Miami. (How many college grads have that on their mind as they approach graduation?) After Taylor and I moved to Fairfield, I went to Shared Harvest where Martha, who is the VISTA Leader for my region, took me through the Benefit Bank. She told me it appeared we were eligible to receive benefits, and thanks to her, about an hour later I had successfully applied for food stamps for our household.

As nice as Martha is, I can't say I enjoyed the application process. Sure, the OBB software makes it easy--just answer the questions and move to the next screen. But the whole application from start to finish is just so...invasive. Because Taylor and I prepare and cook our meals together, he also had to be listed on the application. I needed both of our social security numbers, bank information, resources, a full count of our expenses, all pay stubs from the past 30 days--the list goes on and on. And that was just for the application.

Once we e-submitted my food stamp application through the Benefit Bank, I got a letter a couple days later from Butler Co. Dept. of Jobs and Family Services. They told us that we had an appointment for about a week later (note: they did not ask us what time would be best for us; they told us our date and time and we were expected to show up). This face-to-face interview was to verify that all of the information we put on our application was true. So we had to bring all of those documents I listed above PLUS original birth certificates, social security cards, and photo ID for both of us. Thankfully, Taylor and I keep good records and were able to retrieve every document we needed. If we had come ill-prepared, it would have only slowed down our case.

A few days later we arrived for our appointment. We waited for a while before a woman opened a door and called my name. We nervously got up to follow her down the corridor back to her desk. We knew this person had a lot of power in determining whether we would end up getting our benefits. Not once did she shake our hands, introduce herself, or even look us in the eye. It's those little things that really dehumanize this process, and it makes sense why 500,000 eligible Ohioans don't apply for food stamps. It was humiliating.

I felt myself getting smaller as we sat down across from our caseworker at her desk. Aside from a few 5-foot high partitions between the desks, there was no real privacy. I could hear everything the guy next to us was saying about his finances, and he could hear us too.

Just as quickly as we sat down to verify our information, our caseworker was shooing us out the door. Our paperwork checked out, and it turns out we qualified for expedited food stamps. Our card would arrive within 48 hours loaded with benefits for our first month and half. But our caseworker didn't tell us how much money was going on the card that day ($520) or how much we would receive every month after that ($367). She didn't tell us how the card worked (like a credit card at the check out line) or where we could shop (any grocery store with the food stamp sticker in the window) or what we could buy with the card (any food we could cook and eat--nothing premade and hot, no alcohol, no cigarettes, and no non-food house supplies). We had to kind of research that on our own.

We received our EBT (electronic benefit transfer) card in the mail about a day after our appointment. I remember tearing open the envelope and immediately jumping in the car with Taylor to go grocery shopping. We were so excited to buy fresh fruits and vegetables and to restock our pantry. My mom had paid for our first round of groceries when we moved in, but we were running severely low on food by that point. We were relieved to not have to pay for our groceries out of pocket, especially when we had our rent coming due and neither of us were gainfully employed at the time.

Based on my short-lived experience, I truly believe that food stamps strengthen families. No matter what you might have heard, food stamps aren't welfare and they aren't a handout. In order to receive food stamps, you have to complete a work assessment and either work or volunteer in the community at least 30 hours a week. Living on food stamps hasn't made us lazy, and I refuse to live with the stigma that "food stamps" carry. Food stamps have enabled Taylor and me to buy more healthy, fresh food (which is often more expensive) than we could have afforded if we were using our own money to pay the bill. Thanks to food stamps, we are NOT living on Ramen noodles this year! And because our food expenses are covered for the month, we don't have to worry so much about whether we'll have enough money for gas or electricity or toilet paper, even.

Food stamps strengthen local communities, as well. The money we are spending at the grocery store is staying in our community, which keeps our local grocer and his employees working. And no matter what you may have heard, food stamps are funded by federal dollars. Each year, $35 billion federal dollars go unclaimed, with Ohio missing out on $1.6 billion of that total. If everyone who was eligible applied for and received food stamps, think of how much money would be going back into our local and state economies. Instead, that unclaimed money is redistributed to other states' food stamp programs.

You can probably tell that I am a fan of food stamps. But I am not a fan of the bureaucratic hoops we have to jump through to get and KEEP our benefits. This is only half of the story. In part 4 of this series (yes I just added a part to the series), you'll see how stressful and difficult it can be to keep your benefits once you get them.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Living as a VISTA, part 2

Living Surviving as a VISTA, part 2

As promised, let's now take a look at how our typical living expenses balance out against poverty-level income in part 2 of my series. For the purposes of our exercise today, I'm going to use Taylor's and my income and our actual combined living expenses. We share an apartment and all of our resources, so it would be difficult to calculate my share of the expenses alone. And besides, that's just not how we do things--we share our expenses because we share everything else (thank goodness).

(Note: I have Taylor's permission to use our own budget for today's post. While this is our particular experience, it is intended to shed light on the challenges many VISTAs and other people living in poverty go through from month to month. It is not meant to speak for everyone, but to serve as an example. He and I both think this is an important learning experience for my readers.)

Let's begin with the money coming into our household. You already know that I earn $833/month, which translates into payments of $383.87 biweekly, before taxes. Taylor works for an ambulette company and earns $7.65/hour. (Note: minimum wage is $7.25 in Ohio, as of July 24, 2009.) He has tried to get 35 hours each week (which is considered full time), and so he typically brings home around $400 every two weeks. He also works part-time at Miami University at the Outdoor Pursuit Center, earning $7.75/hour. He gets an average of 6-10 hours per pay period, and brings home around $50-70 every two weeks.

Did I mention that Taylor is a full-time student too? There are days when Taylor leaves the apartment at 7:30am and doesn't return home until 10:30pm after work and classes. He is working hard everyday, all day, to pursue his own goals while still keeping us afloat.

Moving on, that brings our grand total to: $1667.74 for four weeks of work, more or less.

Let's break down our expenses and see how we balance out. First, we have rent for our 1 bedroom apartment. We selected this place based on its price, location, and neighborhood quality. We pay $540/month. Gas heat is also included in the lease, so in the winter we can save money that way, fortunately.

Sure, we could have lived in a much cheaper apartment at $390/month, but at the cost of safety and peace of mind. One week, the newspaper showed one such complex that we toured to have generated at least 4 police reports (accounting for one fourth of the city's section), all violence-related.

$1667.74 (income) - $540.00 (rent+heat)= $1127.74 (remaining income)

Next we pay electricity, including air-conditioning expenses. We usually set our thermostat at 80 degrees and keep our blinds and curtains pulled to reduce expenses. We have also filled plastic bags with water to keep our freezer full, reducing operating costs. We are conservative with our light usage, and we always unplug the laptop and cell phone chargers when not in use. Still our last bill was $59.69/month.

$1127.74 (remaining income) - $59.69 (electricity) = $1068.05 (remaining income)

Let's examine the phone situation. I have had my own cell phone plan since I left home for college, no family plans here. Individually, I was paying $52 every month. There was no way we could afford that kind of an expense now for a single phone. I bought out of my contract for $120 (eventually we will absorb that cost in long-term savings), and bundled our phone service. We get Taylor's cell phone, my cell phone, our landline, and internet service for about $110 a month after taxes have been added on.

$1068.05 (remaining income) - $110.00 (phone+internet) = $958.05 (remaining income)

Now we have arrived at our water bill. The billing cycle from the water company is backlogged one month, so based on our first bill, I project a $42 water bill/month. The bill is determined by taking the entire building's water usage and dividing by the 12 units in the building. No matter how much we conserve, our neighbors ultimately determine what we pay.

$958.05 (remaining income) - $42 (water) = $916.05 (remaining income)

We don't have cable--too expensive. We use an antenna and a digital cable converter box that my dad gave me to get a handful of channels. We are also loyal library patrons, and spend much more time reading (and blogging!) than ever before.

$916.05 (remaining income) - $0 (cable+library use) = $916.05 (remaining income)

Insurance--health. Now, I have health coverage through Americorps VISTA. Taylor has been able to stay on his parents' health insurance as a full-time student. That will most likely end in mid-August when his program ends. From that point on he will be a part-time student so that he can devote more time to working and studying (and sleeping). As of right now, we have no health insurance costs but check back in about a month.

Insurance--car. Taylor's dad recently signed his vehicle over to him so that we could find a lower priced premium. We switched his coverage and are spending $86.19/month. In August we'll be picking up my car insurance too, but not for another few weeks. Again, check back later.

Insurance--renter's. We don't have a lot of stuff, but the stuff we do have, we need. If a fire or flood were to come through this building, we would lose everything. We couldn't afford to not have renter's insurance, and at an average cost of $15.17/month. We'll take it.

$916.05 (remaining income) - $101.36 (renter's + 1 auto policy) = $814.69

Because we wanted to find a lower insurance premium, we had to essentially "buy" Taylor's vehicle from his parents. We will $100/month for 2 years until the car is paid off. As part of the deal with Taylor's dad, after two years, we will receive the entire sum back. But in the meantime, it's $100 we have to come up with every month, so it goes on the list of expenses.

$814.69 (remaining income) - $100 (car payment) = $714.69

Still with me? We also subscribe to our local newspaper. We felt that it was important to keep up with the happenings of the community, plus we receive all of the coupons throughout the week. It's a small fee at $7.32/month.

$714.69 (remaining income) - $7.32 (newspaper) = $707.37 (remaining income)

One of our biggest expenses has been in gasoline. We live in Fairfield, one mile away from Shared Harvest, which is great for me. But Taylor has to drive to Cincinnati every day for work, and then up north to Butler Tech for night classes. In a typical month, we're paying about $100 at the pump, which will increase as I start traveling more with my position.

$707.37 (remaining income) - $100 (gasoline) = $607.37

I' m sure you're wondering about our food costs. As I mentioned at the end of the last post, Taylor and I qualify for food stamps. Since May 19th, we haven't had to spend a dime on food, which has really helped us. But food stamps don't cover household goods that you often buy at the grocery store, like toothpaste, deoderant, paper towels, etc. We guess that we spend about $50/month on that kind of stuff.

$607.37 (remaining income) - $50 (household items) = $557.37 (remaining income)

One last thing--laundry. We're renting and don't have washer and dryer hook ups. Using the coin-operated machines down the hall from our unit, we tend to spend around $7.50 a week, which multiplied by 4 is about $30.

$557.37 (remaining income) - $30 (laundry) = $527.37 (remaining income)

At the end of the month it looks like we have $527.37 left over. Right? Not exactly--that's our remaining amount on paper, which only takes in to account the regular expenses that we are guaranteed to incur over the course of the month. Last month we needed to change the oil in my car and rotate the tires to keep up our maintenance and keep our second vehicle. There were some books that I wanted to keep for my own reference, so we had a small bill from Amazon. We had haircuts yesterday. We also have a balance on a credit card from the past few months of school, not to mention student loan debt to start paying down. And of course I had my dental co-pay last week to factor in. At the end of the month, we might have some money left over from our paychecks, but life pops up and soaks up those funds. Additionally, any money we have left over has been designated for our savings account. If we don't want more debt on our credit cards, we need to be saving towards an emergency fund for those little incidents that could cost us a lot of money.

We hardly have any money left over to do something fun, like get an ice cream cone or go to the movies. And if we do those things, we feel guilty the entire time for spending the money on a $1.99 frozen yogurt.

For those seasoned bill payers out there rolling your eyes and saying "ooh poor baby!" to this post, I hear you. Yes, we're adults and we have bills to pay--we're okay with that. Neither of us expects to be rich. It's the living paycheck to paycheck mentality that we're not okay with. Like most people in poverty, we're constantly worried about money, to the point that when Taylor and I needed haircuts yesterday, I cringed as we wrote the check. We're naturally frugal people, but when we have to decide between getting a package of undershirts or a bottle of mouthwash, there's a problem.

In my first post on this blog, I talked about how joining Americorps VISTA and spending a year in poverty was a choice. Yes--it was my choice, but it wasn't Taylor's. I'm sure when he asked me to marry him that he thought I'd be contributing a little more to our household. I am lucky that he has embraced this experience and encouraged me to follow my passion. Maybe at some point he can post his perspective on all of this--I'd be interested to see how he really feels about our situation.

In the last post of this series, I'll document our journey in receiving food stamps. If you're not familiar with the process, you should find this portion of the series particularly fascinating.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Living as a VISTA, part 1

In my first post, I mentioned the meager living allowance VISTAs receive for their service to America. And it is meager. Not being a shy person, I'm going to spend a few posts on my income and expenses to show you how this VISTA lives, or in some cases, barely scrapes by.

Let's start with the monthly living allowance I mentioned earlier. In urban placements, VISTAs can receive up to $865/month in urban settings. With a population of 42,097 as of the 2000 census, my position in Fairfield, Ohio, is considered rural, qualifying me for $833/month, paid in biweekly installments.

Okay, now despite what you're thinking, that's really not all that bad. I worked part-time through college, earning an average of $7/hour, so I was lucky to take home $500/month, if that. To a college kid facing the reality of unemployment, I'll serve my country for $833/month.

In addition to my living allowance, I also receive free health benefits. I have a $5 co-pay for every doctor visit and a $25 co-pay for every emergency room visit. Of course, this health benefit only covers emergencies and does not extend to preventative care, nor does it cover any pre-existing conditions. For this reason, my health coverage is categorized as a "benefit" not "insurance."

My health benefit does not include vision or dental coverage. And frankly, I have a problem with that.

(It's time for a tangent.)

My parents called me not too long ago to notify me that our family's dental insurance provider would be dropping me from their policy by August unless I could verify that I still qualified; i.e. that I am still a student. Because I am no longer a student, my family encouraged me to get my routine dental exam and cleaning before I would have to cover those costs out of pocket. I called my nearest dentist's office to set up the appointment. The dentist served in the National Guard and has been called up between July 20th and July 31st, so I set up the appointment for Thursday, July 16. I had to leave Shared Harvest a little earlier than usual, but I made it to the appointment. During the exam, the dentist found two cavities. He said if they were left untreated they would undoubtedly lead to nerve damage and require costly root canals. Knowing my dental coverage would soon be ending, I asked the dentist when we could fill the cavaties, and he suggested a date at the beginning of August. I pictured the bill for my fillings without insurance--could we fill them today? I asked. He squeezed me in after the last appointment of the day, and 3 hours and 3 magazines later I left with clean, hole-free teeth.

Even with insurance picking up the bill, I had to pay a $50 co-pay at the end of the appointment. Now let's stop for a second and rewind. Most people in poverty have no health insurance, but if they have a low enough income they can usually qualify for Medicaid coverage. But what about dental insurance? Out of pocket, my dental visit would have cost $200 for the regular exam and cleaning, plus another $200 or so for the cavities. What family has $400 lying around for each member of their family to visit the dentist every 6 months? You can see why many people forgo the dentist's office altogether, and it has nothing to do with being afraid of the man (or woman) behind the mask. They're afraid of the bills. And without proper preventative care or treatment, their teeth and gums are more likely to rot and decay, but not before a heaping dose of pain and discomfort.

Needless to say, I don't look forward to my visit 6 months from now when I'm the one picking up the bill, but facing the alternative of rotten teeth, I'll come up with the money somehow.

Alright, enough tangential talk, let's get back on track here. Included in my health benefit is free prescription coverage, including prescriptions for pre-existing conditions. Pretty cool--that's an instant money saver and makes me much more likely to go to the doctor when I'm sick, knowing that whatever she prescribes for me will be paid for in full.

Being a VISTA also gives me access to life insurance for something like $2.64 a month or some other small amount. In the case of my untimely death, Taylor (remember him? he's my fiance) would receive $19,600, I believe. In case you were wondering how much a VISTA is worth in dollars, there it is.

Once I complete my year of service, I'm entitled to an end of service cash stipend of $1200 or an education award of $4,725. I chose to receive the latter, which I will apply towards graduate school. Some VISTAs use their education awards to pay off loan balances, as well. VISTAs are also eligible for loan forbearance and I think the interest accrued on their loans during their year of service is paid by Americorps, as well. I'm not entirely sure about that--other VISTAs out there, please set me straight.

At my site, I received a laptop, broadband card, and a cell phone to use for the year, in addition to office space at Shared Harvest (see previous post). As part of my assignment, I'll be spending a lot of time on the road, so I am reimbursed $.55 for every mile I drive on VISTA time. That is supplemented by a $75 gas card I receive every month, as well. Not too shabby, especially considering not all VISTAs get those kinds of perks from their sites.

Lastly, as a VISTA I am able to continue receiving any public benefits that I was receiving before beginning my year of service without penalty. In other words, my income does not count towards our total household income when calculating our food stamp budget. (And yes, we receive food stamps, which I will share more about in part 3 of this series.)

To the current VISTAs out there, if I have forgotten anything, please let me know! As you can see, the list of benefits VISTAs receive is pretty extensive.

But stay tuned for a list of my expenses. Will my income as a VISTA really cover my cost of living? Find out in part 2 of my Living as a VISTA series, coming soon.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Home, sweet home

Here it is--my official workspace at Shared Harvest! After a little strategic shuffling of desks and tables, we moved this table from the break room into my office earlier this morning. It's much better than mooching off of Meredith and Martha's unused desk space or setting up shop on my filing cabinet! I spent a little time this morning making it my own. Check out my bulletin board, which I adopted from Meredith's stash, and the document stands and file trays I claimed from our newly cleaned closet. I even salvaged two milk crates, as seen at the left side of the table, for our own little shelving unit.

You might be wondering why the table is so long--that's because I will be sharing it with our second VISTA, Alex! She was hired on last week, but her paperwork isn't quite ready, so she won't be starting until late August. (Hopefully she'll have a chair by that time!) We have already hit it off, and I know she and I will work well together this year. I am excited for her to begin her term of service! In the meantime, it is nice to have a friend in Fairfield.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Get ready

As I mentioned in a previous post, one of my goals this year is to proactively (not reactively) recruit more Ohio Benefit Bank sites in my 7-county region (including Darke, Butler, Miami, Preble, Greene, Montgomery, and Warren counties). Over the past few weeks I have been researching food pantries, shelters, clinics, churches, and other non-profits not currently listed as Ohio Benefit Bank sites. Through hours and hours of cross-referencing and searching, I compiled contact information for more than 320 organizations into a massive database for future access.

Eventually, the next step will be to contact these organizations and inform them of what the Benefit Bank has to offer. Community presentations will be an instrumental part of this recruitment effort. So when I learned that Meredith would be attending an OBB presentation today, I asked to tag along to get a better idea of what such a presentation looks like.

This morning, we ventured out from Shared Harvest for a few hours to Sinclair Community College in Dayton where Shannon Teague, the Director of the Ohio Benefit Bank gave a basic overview of the OBB to interested area agencies. Greg Landsman, the Director of the Governor's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, was also in attendance, and he discussed grant opportunities through the Governor's office for the organizations in attendance. Overall, it was a good session--most people tend to be impressed with the success of the Ohio Benefit Bank, and this day was no different.

All things considered, it seems relatively fun and easy to put out information about the Benefit Bank. The challenge comes in keeping agencies motivated to move forward in the process of actually becoming a site. This can be a frustrating part of our jobs. Over the past few weeks I have placed numerous follow-up calls with agencies still working on the pre-requisite requirements to becoming an OBB site. We have some agencies that began the process as long ago as November 2008, and still aren't sites! I am still trying to figure out how to [gently] push them forward, but it isn't easy.

Other problems arise when sites are centered primarily in urban areas, creating limited access for people living in rural areas. And those complications are only compounded when sites decide to close to the general public and serve only their clients. Not only will I need to target more rural agencies and organizations in my recruitment efforts, but I will also need to figure out a way to encourage sites to remain open to the public.

Piece of cake, right?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Hi-ho, hi-ho

The first goal listed on my VISTA assignment description is to recruit and train people from local organizations on how to use the Benefit Bank software so they, in turn, can effectively counsel community members through the application process for government benefits. The steps in becoming a trainer are as follows:

1. Go through a training as a counselor
2. Observe a training
3. Attend Community Trainer orientation in Columbus (July 22-24)
4. Perform two training sessions under the supervision of your regional coordinator
5. Review my performance to improve, make a plan for future sessions, and I’m on my own!

I became a counselor in my first week at Shared Harvest, so the next step was to observe a community training. On Monday, July 13th, I had a chance to watch my regional coordinator (and boss) Meredith train counselors from the Warren County Community Services on how to use the OBB with their clients.

The day was intended for me to take notes about the logistics necessary to conduct my own future trainings, which I did with no problem. But my observations ended up leading to an additional little gem that I have tucked away for future use.

There is a section in the training when the trainer discusses the many different benefits the OBB helps people apply for. It is obviously important for counselors to have some general knowledge of the benefits featured in the software. But that day I also discovered how important it is for the trainer to talk through additional, less obvious issues pertaining to poverty, including policies and prejudices that impact families and individuals at their core.

I listened as Meredith explained how the federal poverty guideline is calculated via an archaic formula set in the 1960s that assumes people still spend a third of their income on food. She explained how food stamp benefits are determined from another 1960s notion that says people could survive on a thrifty allotment of $1 per meal, per person, per day, or, in other words, $3/day for food. Although benefit amounts have been adjusted as the cost of living rises, it often isn’t enough to fully meet people’s needs. On average, families tend to run out of their monthly food stamp allotment about two and a half weeks into the month.

As she talked, I watched the reactions of the three women receiving training. Before long, they were interrupting Meredith with their own protests:

“But how could a family really live on that kind of money?”
“You can’t buy fresh fruits and vegetables and protein for $3 per day; it just can’t be done.”
“Yeah, so why would they use such an outdated formula? Why has no one ever changed it?”

Nodding in agreement, Meredith told the women about the Food Stamp Challenge, in which state and local officials are challenged to live on $3/day for a week to experience what millions of Americans go through every day, in hopes that it will inspire them to change such outdated policies.

For instance, this year Joel Potts, the Executive Director of the Ohio Job and Family Services Directors’ Association challenged Governor Strickland to join him in the Food Stamp Challenge as state health and human services faced drastic budget cuts. To be honest, I’m not sure if the governor accepted the challenge or not. But even if he had, I doubt it would have changed how food stamp benefits are calculated. Many politicians fear disrupting such a system, because it could lead to the death of their political careers.

After talking through these issues for several minutes, the women seemed disappointed in the bureaucracy of the system, but not defeated. They realized they had an opportunity to make a difference by helping people at least gain access to much-needed benefits. One woman even commented, “I’m going to have to write my representatives about this,” as she jotted a note to herself on the corner of her paper.

The training went on as normal, and the women were certified as Benefit Bank counselors a few hours later. And even though I was only observing that day, I was proud to have been a part of the process. This small group of motivated women will enter their community as anti-poverty advocates, whether they overtly realize it or not. Having a greater understanding of the intricacies of poverty, I am confident they will approach their clients with compassion, dignity, and respect.

I realized from this experience that it is not enough to just tell people how to use a program like the Benefit Bank. My duties as a trainer go beyond that. For this program to thrive, you have to show people why they are important, why it matters that they are Benefit Bank counselors as patient, empathetic, compassionate human beings. Slowly but surely, that human-level understanding of poverty will trickle through the community. And that’s how attitudes and policies towards people in poverty can change. I think. I’ll keep you posted.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Becoming a VISTA: How did I get here?

I’ve found that as you look toward the future, it is often beneficial to look back and remember where you came from. The following post will expand on what brought me to VISTA and Shared Harvest.

I discovered my life’s work about midway through my tenure at Miami University after taking an Introduction to Disability Studies course with Dr. Kathy McMahon-Klosterman. It was my first exposure to social justice and I eagerly jumped into the field. Working with my [now] fiancĂ© Taylor, we brought wheelchair accessible seating to the school’s ice arena, created a fully accessible campus tour route, served as teaching assistants, presented on ally behavior at conferences, and participated as the only undergraduate representatives on the President’s committee on campus accessibility. It was tough, exhilarating, maddening work, and along the way I found friends, enemies, and passion. I found my voice.

And so I had found my calling. Ironically enough, my calling and my major didn’t exactly match, which is a pretty typical occurrence for college kids, I’ve heard. Although I would end up graduating with a degree in speech pathology, I was already moving in a different direction. Instead of applying for graduate level speech pathology programs like most of my classmates, I spent my last year at Miami scouring the Internet for non-profit positions and community service opportunities. Eventually, I took the advice of older, wiser students, friends, and professors, and began to search exclusively for positions in my area through Americorps.

As luck would have it, an Americorps VISTA representative from the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks (OASHF) was scheduled to attend Miami’s fall career fair during my senior year. In the weeks preceding the fair, I read everything I could find about OASHF, including information on their major outreach program called the Ohio Benefit Bank (OBB). Launched in conjunction with the Governor’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, the Benefit Bank is a web-based software program designed to help low-income families and individuals file their taxes and gain access to public benefits. It breaks down the barriers that many people face when applying for government assistance.

Bingo. This organization was right up my alley.

The previous summer, I spent 15 weeks studying the bureaucratic nonsense of the Social Security system through a research grant from the university. I quickly discovered how exhausting navigating the SSA’s red tape could be, and I was infuriated to learn firsthand from ambivalent caseworkers how poorly informed people are throughout the application process.

Even though the OBB is not linked to Social Security applications, I knew I would enjoy working with any program that helps people better navigate and access government benefits. I didn’t need the 10 minute chat with Joe Cennamo, the recruiter at the career fair that day, to know this was the position for me.

I spent the winter months completing my online application, securing my references, and waiting for the VISTA position with the OBB at Shared Harvest to open. The position finally posted on February 5, 2009, I applied that same day and I had my final interview on March 2, 2009. I’d had my eye on the position for 6 months, so you can imagine my delight at being offered the position—I accepted it on the spot.

Friday, July 10, 2009

A Life-Changing Choice

Poverty isn’t just about being poor. In fact, poverty isn’t the best synonym for “lacking money.” As David Shipler writes in his book, The Working Poor: Invisible in America, poverty is also a state of mind, a state of being. It is a sense of hopelessness and helplessness all in one.

Poverty is generally not the result of a single choice, no matter what you might think about the drug addict down the street or the single mother next door. It is cyclical and interlocking. Poverty comes from a series of linked circumstances and generational traps that are not easily overcome. People do not choose to live in daily hardship, oppression, and suffering. They do not choose to go to bed hungry, they do not choose to earn minimum wage, they do not choose for their electricity to be shut off, but that is often what they get.

People don’t choose poverty. Well, some people in particular do.

Enter the Americorps VISTA, or volunteer in service to America. Some people liken Americorps to the PeaceCorps, except its members serve domestic interests as opposed to foreign ones. VISTAs dedicate about a year of their lives to eradicating poverty and building sustainability in the communities where they are placed. It’s difficult, rewarding work, but being an Americorps VISTA is not a job—it is a stint of service to the United States. Instead of wages, volunteers receive a meager living allowance set just above the poverty line. Why? Because VISTAs must genuinely experience poverty to fully connect with the people they serve.

Three weeks ago, I began my stint at the Shared Harvest Foodbank in Fairfield, Ohio. Over the coming year, I will write about my experiences—the good, the bad, and the ugly—as an Americorps VISTA in Southwest Ohio. I welcome you to follow me this year, and I hope you’ll gain new insights into critical social issues facing our communities. I want this to be a place of networking and social exchange, as well, so if you have ideas, tips, questions, or experiences to share, please do!

Here’s to the journey.