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June 5, 2003

Shortage of signers could hurt the deaf

From: Austin American Statesman, TX - Jun 5, 2003

Group is running low on volunteers to help communicate about paying bills on time

By Jennifer Barrios

Bob Senecal spent the afternoon paying bills. It was an ordinary enough activity, but Senecal was paying the bills of a complete stranger -- and volunteering to do it.

Senecal spends two afternoons a month at the offices of Family Eldercare, an Austin nonprofit that, despite its name, serves the disabled of all ages by providing day care, legal guardianship and services such as bill paying.

This week, Senecal sat down with Robbie Mitchell, 38. Mitchell has been coming to Family Eldercare for nearly three years, meeting with Senecal twice a month and listening while he explains her finances.

"I wouldn't make it month to month," before Family Eldercare, Mitchell said. " I wouldn't remember spending things. It's on track now. My bills are on time, and I don't have a problem too much at the end of the month."

But the organization faces a special challenge: Family Eldercare has 15 deaf people in need of volunteers to work with them but has only one staff member who can use American Sign Language.

That led Pamela Kinney, who manages the volunteer services division, to start searching for volunteers who can communicate with deaf clients.

"Right now our staff goes out and visits (the deaf), but they communicate by writing down things," Kinney said.

Under the bill-paying program, volunteers visit with clients twice a month and either remind them to pay their bills, or actually write out the checks for the clients. Without this service, Kinney said, these clients can be "evicted, their services are interrupted, and their debts go to collection. With a volunteer, it really turns around their financial status."

Family Eldercare faced a small influx of deaf clients with mental retardation late last year from Travis County Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, part of the city/county Department of Health and Human Services.

The county had been assisting these people -- who could not handle their bank accounts -- by writing out their checks. But in late 2002, the county started shifting those clients to Family Eldercare because county officials no longer wanted to be writing checks on behalf of clients, said Deborah Drummond, program manager with the county.

"We didn't feel we could write the checks out for them anymore," Drummond said. "The county government shouldn't be in that position."

That put Family Eldercare in a strange situation -- it had to provide services to clients with whom it could not communicate.

Myra Janssens has been a case manager with Family Eldercare for nearly a year. She handles 35 clients, 10 of whom are deaf and many who have mental disabilities.

Janssens knows a little sign language, but ends up acting things out in order to communicate.

"We get by," she said. "We do the best we can."

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