You can tell that Tamara Thompson (name has been changed) has not led an easy life. Her warm brown eyes constantly dart back and forth, absorbing everything that happens around her. After raising four children of her own, on her own, she is now trying to gain full custody of her grandson, whose mother is unfit to care for a six year old. She speaks with pride as she reminisces on the beautiful flower and vegetable garden she had at the home she lived in for nearly eighteen years. When the housing market took a turn for the worse a few years back, she was forced to move into substandard housing on a dangerous corner in Ypsilanti. “Look!” she says as she pulls out the cell phone she and her son share. “This is the second car this month to crash by my house!” The grainy picture shows an old Ford a few feet away from her home, whose front end looks more like a smashed soda can than a working vehicle.
I first met Tamara a few months ago at one of Hope Clinic’s weekly food distributions. As a Community Resource Navigator, I was there to introduce and explain the MiBridges online benefit application system to folks, as well as answer any questions they might have about their Department of Human Services (DHS) benefits. Tamara came to my table, chitchatting as she examined my papers. Not being in need of a change to her benefits, she asked a few questions about housing resources, specifically for an agency that might help her put together a deposit for a new place to live. I gave her a few numbers and my information, and we pleasantly parted ways.
Last month when I was called to Hope Clinic for an appointment, I was surprised to see Tamara waiting for me. Immediately she started pulling out papers and detailing the phone calls she had made in the last week. Thinking I’d be of no real use to this woman, I looked up as she pulled a broken tooth out of her mouth she said “Kelsey, I just didn’t know who else to turn to.” Right then, everything changed for me. These are the times I feel most useful as a Community Resource Navigator- when I can serve as a point of contact between a client who is feeling overwhelmed, scared or frustrated, and connect them to the organizations in the area that have been established to help.
Tamara went on to explain that last week she cracked a tooth that had been “fixed” years ago at a low cost clinic. Exposed gums and jagged remains were all that was left in place of where a full, intact incisor should be. The tooth itself, now pinched between her fingertips, was starting to grey, but she continued to keep it wedged in place. “I might be poor, but honey I can’t go on walkin’ around like this. My own grandson says it’s scary!” Only now did her desperation begin to show, and the harsh humility that comes from relying on others for financial aid. She went on to explain that the lowest cost to replace it would be $100, and an additional $400 was needed to construct a replacement flipper. At that point, her electricity, rent and phone bills were all paid, so she figured she could take away the money from those for next month and ‘just deal with it.’ That scenario, the perpetuation of poverty and the sense of powerlessness that comes from always being one step behind, was not something I could let happen.
Coincidentally, the day before I had attended the monthly Barrier Busters meeting. Barrier Busters is a group of nearly one hundred social service provider agencies committed to increasing communication and coordination between its members, and improving services for Washtenaw County residents in need. Each month, guest speakers are invited to give presentations that encompass a common theme, county updates are relayed, and members can pass on any announcements from their agency. Very generally speaking, it is an exceptional discussion forum and acts as a space to share resources. My biggest take away from this group is being part of the email list. Knowing that at my fingers tips I am almost instantly connected to hundreds of contacts in the community provides me with an invisible layer of confidence in my daily service.
Quite obviously, one of the first steps I made was to send an email to the Barrier Busters group. Within minutes, I received phone calls and email replies asking for more information, or advice on how I should proceed. I was given the information for a woman who works at the Washtenaw Health Plan, who is the assigned Barrier Buster in my area that is trained to enter in financial requests such as this one. She then emailed me the forms to fill out, which I did with Tamara after I contacted the dentist to ensure that they would accept this form of payment. Like many health providers who focus on low-income populations, they were happy to provide a relatively inexpensive procedure with a ‘promise to pay’ from an outreach organization on Ms. Thompsons’ behalf.
Less than two weeks after meeting with me, Tamara was able to get funding secured for her tooth to be safely removed. Once the procedure was completed, the bill was passed along through the proper channels, and payment was delivered to the dentist. For now at least, Tamara does not have to worry about jeopardizing her tight monthly budget or skimping on food or other expenses we would all consider necessities. I can happily share this story because all of the right players came together. Not only did Tamara trust that I would follow through on my words from months earlier about doing all that I could to help, but she did as much research as possible on her own. From there, a proven and successful network of grants, concerned advocates, and county employees worked to improve this woman’s life.
My hope for Tamara, and all of the clients I work with, is that amid the chaos and stress that seems to be inherent to living an impoverished life, they are also able to experience the love and care that circulates in the community. The services non-profit agencies provide may come develop from need, but they are continued on and fueled by compassion.
Kelsey Cauley is the AmeriCorps Member/Community Resource Navigator at Food Gatherers.