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Published: Monday, 10/21/2013 - Updated: 1 year ago

Volunteers sought to sign residents up for benefits

Locals help clients get Medicaid, other aid

BY VANESSA McCRAY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Volunteer Janice Flahiff and Sean Easterly help people apply for benefits such as food stamps, but more volunteers are needed. Volunteer Janice Flahiff and Sean Easterly help people apply for benefits such as food stamps, but more volunteers are needed.
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Area agencies are recruiting volunteers to help people apply for benefits such as food assistance, Medicaid, and other programs using a mobile, online service.

Volunteers go to senior centers, senior housing complexes, libraries, churches, and other sites to serve as counselors for the Mobile Benefit Bank. It uses the online Ohio Benefit Bank, a program of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, to connect people to government benefits and even register to vote.

The nonprofit regional law firms Advocates for Basic Legal Equality Inc. and Legal Aid of Western Ohio Inc. operate the local mobile program, which since its 2009 launch has helped nearly 2,500 people in Lucas and Wood counties sign up for public benefits by sending counselors into the community to tell people about the system and help them access various programs.

RELATED ARTICLE: Panel OKs Medicaid expansion in Ohio

Now, organizers want to recruit more volunteer counselors and especially are encouraging people age 55 or older to volunteer through the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, which provides travel reimbursement and other incentives. Until recently, Mobile Benefit Bank counselor positions had been filled primarily by members of AmeriCorps, which now focuses on emergency food assistance programs, ABLE senior attorney Lisa Mantel said.

That leaves a need for more volunteers to continue the mobile program’s work.

“Most people are just excited that they run into us out there. A lot of them don’t know where to turn, so when they come meet us and we’re able to not only do the food stamps, but we’re able to do Medicaid, … to combine it all together for them, they really appreciate that,” said Sean Easterly, a Mobile Benefit Bank counselor with ABLE.

Working with the RSVP program to find volunteers made sense, said Ed Newman, a member of AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America who is assigned to ABLE and working on recruiting volunteers. “A lot of the agencies that we deal with are senior centers. A lot of our clients are seniors, and this was viewed to be a pretty natural affiliation,” he said.

He said people who wish to serve as volunteers receive about six hours of training on how to navigate the online site and assist clients.

Because the work is computer-based, those interested in volunteering should be comfortable using technology. Volunteers are provided with mobile tools — a laptop, portable printer, scanner, and wireless Internet access— when they are at a site.

Volunteers should have their own transportation, said Jackie Simpson, volunteer coordinator for RSVP, a program of the Area Office on Aging of Northwestern Ohio Inc. Organizers also hope volunteers can make a “consistent commitment” to provide counseling help, Ms. Mantel said.

Janice Flahiff, an RSVP volunteer who lives in Point Place, has received Mobile Benefit Bank training. She called it a “straightforward program” that’s user-friendly. Many people she helps are able to follow along as she enters their information, and she acts mostly as a guide.

Since 2009, the program has signed up clients who have received nearly $2 million in food-stamp benefits and help with heating bills and prescriptions.

For more information about volunteering for the Mobile Benefit Bank, contact Mr. Newman at 419-930-2367 or by email at enewman@ablelaw.org.

Contact Vanessa McCray at: vmccray@theblade.com or 419-724-6056, or on Twitter @vanmccray.



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