Dotting every ‘I’, crossing every’ T’, and checking every box come naturally for Wyandot Center’s SOAR team. This is, after all, a team whose chief responsibility is securing federal and state benefits for adult consumers of Wyandot Center services.
But the SOAR team’s work is about more than navigating a bureaucratic maze. It’s about giving our consumers the practical tools they need to get on a path to recovery.
“Our aim is to give people their lives back,” said Sandra Kay Munson, who supervises Wyandot’s SOAR and Supportive Employment teams. “The benefits make that so much easier. They restore hope, which allows us to concentrate on recovery.”
SOAR is a federally-designated acronym that stands for “SSI/SSDI Outreach, Access, and Recovery.”
And by many measures, Wyandot’s SOAR team embodies that acronym—with flying colors. Case managers Annie Kessler and Francoise Borchardt are on the front lines of this work. Thanks to their persistence and attention to detail, Wyandot Center secures SSI/SSDI benefits for an average of 25 new consumers a year.
All of those consumers must meet a requirement of having a serious and persistent mental illness and having been either homeless or precariously housed. The benefits they receive help them meet basic needs of shelter, food, clothing, and, in a number of cases, employment assistance. In addition, they become eligible for housing programs, food stamps, and Medicaid, which helps pay for medicines and services at Wyandot.
The work isn’t easy. It takes an average of 2-4 months to complete an SSI/SSDI application. During that time, Annie and Fran are gathering information to provide tangible evidence that a consumer qualifies for the benefits. They have to track down former employers to determine the degree to which their disability interfered with work. They arrange for mental health exams at Wyandot. They unearth jail and prison records.
During this time, they work with the Supported Employment team to make sure the applicants are looking for work (another requirement that must be documented). When the application is completed, Annie and Fran have often amassed a file of more than 180 pages for each consumer.
“This is an arduous task,” Annie said. “But we have to document the need in order to justify the government checks the consumer will receive.”
In many cases, consumers are awarded “back pay,” money they would have received if their application had been immediately approved. They can use that money, which often reaches several thousand dollars, to pay off debts from court fines and child support, if they have any. Most important, they can use it to invest in basic needs. And they aren’t left to make those spending decisions alone: all consumers who receive benefits as a result of the SOAR team’s efforts work with a case manager to create a budget and identify their spending priorities.
“We don’t just let them go once they’re approved,” Annie said.
But before that hard work begins, there is often a moment of celebration for consumers who are awarded benefits. “This is the first positive thing that’s happened to them in years,” Annie said. “They’re extremely happy.”