Friday, April 27, 2012

Giving back

When Rhondisa Cotton, RCIL’s program assistant in Administration, was first offered the opportunity to apply to work at RCIL, she was hesitant. She remembered, “I said, ‘no, I can’t work here, I don’t know nothing. I only got my high school diploma, my GED. You have to know something to work here.’” However, ready to confront the next hurdle, Cotton applied for the opening. “I knew this place would open up some doors for me,” she explained.

The mother of a young son and pregnant, she had come to the agency, as “a last resort. I was frustrated with all these agencies. What made RCIL different,” she added, “was that they heard me.” In particular, Cotton said she remembered the autonomy she had in deciding what services she wanted. “Miss Gail Perry sat down with me and asked me what I needed and what kind of plan I wanted. Then she said, ‘ok, now we can see how we can make this happen.’”

In the job interview a few days later, Cotton told her interviewers, “I like your agency, I like what it does. I’d like to give back.” She got the job, and started that next Monday in 2007 as a program assistant. Her responsibilities, though, Cotton said, extend far beyond the limits of her job description. “I’m all over the place. If they need me, I’m there.”

She said that sometimes, she’ll talk to consumers who come in or help out with youth programs or advocacy work. Colorful drawings plastered to the walls of her office remind her of the young friends she’s made. And around RCIL, Cotton says her bright smile is a way of saying thanks to all the other employees also working to make a difference.

Last year, she graduated with an associate’s degree in Human and Community Services and is working on her bachelor's degree. Making use of RCIL advisement and programs, Cotton bought a car several years ago and is on track to own her home in seven months. Cotton left me with her advice for potential consumers.  “Tell them that change is scary,” she urged. “It’s hard. But we know that at RCIL and we’ll help you through it.” 

- Katie J. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A conscientious federal spending plan?

Legislators left the Capitol for Easter break and advocates for the poor are still reeling as a House of Representatives Budget Resolution tears apart social safety-net programs and creates new tax benefits for the wealthy.

Led by Paul Ryan, the House of Representatives approved the spending budget for 2014 and beyond, setting limits to what the federal government’s contribution to domestic programs would be by “block-granting” set funding amounts to states.  This is troublesome because it means the loss of states’ ability to meet actual need for healthcare, housing, employment, and food assistance - especially at a time when the economy is still trying to recover and millions are still out of work.

Ryan’s proposal makes even steeper cuts to domestic programs (than what is called for) in the Budget Control Act of 2011.  This would require deep automatic cuts to programs beginning in 2013 if an alternative proposal is not agreed upon by President Obama and Congress.   What’s even more troubling about the House proposal is it creates new lower tax brackets for the super-rich and slashes corporate tax rates for companies.  The Coalition on Human Needs is projecting automatic spending reductions will cut many low-income programs by 20% or more, including  job training, WIC, housing, and more. 

The House Budget Resolution would also repeal the Affordable Care Act meaning an additional 30 million people uninsured.  By 2050, the federal government would almost entirely be out of the social safety-net business aside from Social Security, defense, and some healthcare.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently likened Paul Ryan’s approach to conservative Grover Norquist’s vision in an interview on NPR where he related, “I don’t want to abolish government.  I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”  The vision for a limited government does not take into consideration the impact of what suddenly pulling the rug out from under millions of Americans – now, and in the long-term will do.  Many experts have acknowledged what is needed is a balanced approach to recovery, including revenue increases, so millions of Americans can continue receiving assistance as the economy struggles to recover. 

President Obama has also put forth a spending plan to achieve deficit reduction over many years, acknowledging the important role safety-net programs play in recovery and people’s day-to-day lives.  If no agreement is reached with Congress, the automatic cuts would go into effect in FY 2013 and by conservative estimates:
·        75,000 children would not be able to receive Head Start services
·        25,000 children could not receive child care assistance
·        17,000 seniors would no longer receive Meals on Wheels
·        12,200 people couldn’t get vital AIDS drugs
·        460,000 special education students would receive fewer or no services
·        1.3 million college students would lose or face reductions in their supplemental education

·        734,000 households would no longer receive help paying for their home heating or air conditioning

It is imperative that we work with our own congressional leaders and urge them to adopt a proposal that does not hurt those things we care deeply about.  America’s social safety-net is a critical component of our economy and its programs are a part of how we all live.  Without federal assistance and guidance, states will be more likely to end critical programs or reduce them to such a level that millions will remain (or become) homeless, hungry, unemployed, and sick. 

We can do much better than the Ryan plan to gradually reduce our deficit through a plan acknowledging the important role the federal government continues to play in stabilizing the economy  - and assuring all children and all families have a bright future. 

The Ryan message is not representative of who we are and what we want to be as a nation.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Congressman Hanna visits RCIL and the Earned Income Tax Credit Program

Congressman Richard Hanna (NY-24) visited RCIL's Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Program on Saturday, March 24, 2012 at 1607 Genesee Street, Utica.  This gave Congressman Hanna the opportunity to speak with various members of the Mohawk Valley Asset Building Coalition (MVABC), officials from IRS, taxpayers and learn more about the VITA Program.

The MVABC was developed in partnership with RCIL, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Oneida County and Internal Revenue Service with financial support from the United Way of the Valley and Greater Utica Area, Inc.

 Our mission is to:  Increase awareness and utilization of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC); increase the availability and accessibility of free tax preparation assistance and e-filing opportunities through Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites; and link EITC participants to information, education, and services to improve financial literacy, and management skills designed to build long-term financial security. 

Millions of dollars had gone unreported each year for Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and now through the VITA program, the opportunity exists to assist taxpayers in claiming these credits. 
The over 35 certified volunteers who provide free tax preparation services at RCIL’s Supersite are college students, community members and retirees.  The EITC Program qualifications specifically target low to moderate income individuals and families living in Oneida and Herkimer Counties, with a household income of $50,000 or less.

In 2010-2011, the VITA sites brought $4.1 million of refunds into the community and $1.4 million dollars in earned income tax credits.  A total of 2,984 taxes were prepared.

We are currently reporting 1,205 tax returns prepared (not including AARP’s numbers) with a total of $2 million in refunds.  This number will increase to meet our community goals by the end of this filing season.

Our Volunteer Income Tax Assistance sites are:  RCIL (Utica), Mohawk Valley Community Action Agency (Utica, Ilion, Rome) AARP (in various locations in our area) and Mohawk Valley Perinatal Network.  Financial Literacy classes are available to taxpayers through Cornell Cooperative Extension. 
If you qualify for EITC and have not filed your tax return, please call 315.272.1888 to schedule an appointment for free tax preparation.  We will be filing returns through Tuesday, April 17, 2012.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

What does it take to end discrimination?

RCIL provided testimony last week at the State Budget Hearing held in Utica by Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi on Governor Cuomo’s proposed 2012 Budget. With an emphasis on reducing spending through Medicaid and other reforms, we focused on how legislation called the Integrated Services Bill,  could save the state approximately 3.4 billion by shifting individuals with disabilities from institutional settings to community-based life.  According to Donna Gillette, Policy Analyst at RCIL, “New York is still out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act that directs states to provide services in the least restrictive or most integrated setting appropriate to meet people’s needs.” The current Medicaid program still funds failed, outdated programs for individuals with disabilities in institutional settings.  The Medicaid Redesign Team created by Governor Cuomo has failed to require these practices to end.

RCIL has proposed the use of the Integrated Services Bill as the perfect tool for the state to implement the Supreme Court's Olmstead decision in New York and highlighted by Governor Cuomo in his State of the State address earlier this year. The Olmstead Decision was a landmark case that directed states to serve individuals with disabilities in ways that did not unnecessarily segregate them or institutionalize them. The Integrated Services Bill previously passed in the state’s Senate and Assembly, yet Governor Paterson vetoed the bill in 2008 because he believed a state council that was already working on these issues would propose their own legislation or action.  The Council, called the Most Integrated Setting Coordinating Council (MISCC), has failed to demonstrate true reform reiterating the need for the legislature and the Governor to pass the Bill now.

Assemblyman Brindisi has agreed to work with RCIL and the legislature to build support for the Bill in 2012 so that it will be reintroduced and sent to Governor Cuomo to be signed.  As Medicaid Reform in New York State moves disability populations to managed care, it is essential that we protect consumer-directed models of care within the new structure.  Without having legislation that gives people the choice of where to receive services and presumes that everyone can benefit from community life, segregation will continue.  This bill will provide the framework that is vital in assuring that providers who benefit from keeping people segregated, can no longer do so.  Recent investigative reporting in the New York Times has shown the rampant abuse and death of individuals with cognitive disabilities residing in institutional settings across the state.  There are 135,000 New Yorkers with developmental disabilities currently being served through the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, many of whom could and should be living in their own apartments or homes in the community.

The Integrated Services Bill would finally give people the choice they’ve never had to direct their lives and their futures. Without it, the equality we’ve been fighting for will remain elusive.  For more information on the bill and how to get involved in transforming the way government does business, contact Donna Gillette at extension 2981.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Assemblyman Marc Butler visits RCIL

Resource Center for Independent Living hosts community forum in Herkimer

Assemblyman Marc Butler recently met with individuals and their families who receive services at RCIL’s Herkimer Office on East German Street to discuss challenges faced by people with disabilities in daily living and in the current economic environment.

The conference room was full on February 23, 2012 with a group invited to dialogue about issues such as employment, housing, transportation, and education. One of the central topics covered in the forum were the difficulties faced when a youth or adult has multiple problems not easily categorized for services. Serving the whole person in this situation may require a team approach including RCIL staff, medical providers, social workers, guidance counselors, teachers, and/or family members and a collaborative approach from local agencies assisting individuals.

Assemblyman Butler listened intently to the comments made and explained some of the budgetary changes being enacted by the current governor and legislature possibly affecting the availability of services for persons with disabilities.  The information included the new 2% property tax cap, the legislative budget process with its complexity of formulas, and the history of the Medicaid program, compared from its original design from 1960 to today.

RCIL will be following up with attendees requesting assistance and those who expressed an interest in serving on the Herkimer RCIL Advisory Board. This board reviews current practices and helps plan future programming and initiatives.

The Resource Center for Independent Living (RCIL) believes that everyone one of us is entitled to maintain our basic human dignity. We support your right to have individualized services that you direct. Dignity begins with having a choice – and then choosing what’s best for you. Call RCIL in Herkimer at 866-7245 or Utica at 797-4642.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Catering with purpose

“You can tell I don’t sit down much,” Debra Richardson, Program Director at Leaf, Loaf & Ladle noted with a sheepish grin as she gestured toward her makeshift desk in a corner of the kitchen space. However, Richardson didn’t seem to mind the hustle and bustle; her work is a realization of her vision to revitalize lives through food.  And, she added, “My work is what I’m passionate about.” 

Leaf, Loaf & Ladle is a catering service and social enterprise of RCIL, based out of the kitchens in the Dorothy Smith Center for Advocacy in Utica. Along with Richardson, who provides the oversight and organization for the business, Chef Mike Capelli heads up the culinary aspect, filling out the two person show.  As well as regularly catering meetings, weddings and other events by request, Leaf, Loaf & Ladle also prepares and serves meals to the participants of RCIL’s Adult Day Service Program, focusing on a fresh, healthy whole foods menu. “If we’re having potatoes,” Richardson avowed, “we’re not going to open up a can.”

The origins of Leaf, Loaf & Ladle were a culmination of Richardson’s past work in food services and her commitment to reach out to her community. In 2005, Richardson said, the pieces of her life had started to come together; she had a steady job with Hotel Utica, “Everything was going right,” she recalled, “but I just wasn’t happy. I needed to get in touch with food.” That same year, Richardson heard about the Farestart program in Seattle, Washington, a catering service that served as a job training program with a focus on making and serving healthy, high quality meals. She began working with the Kitchens with Missions folks in Seattle and in 2008, everything fell into place as Richardson was able to partner with RCIL to apply the same goals in Utica. Especially with the growing demand to eat locally and prevent diet-related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity, she said, “there’s such a need.”

The business is constantly adapting to fit the available niche and to most efficiently utilize its resources for good. For instance, previously Leaf, Loaf & Ladle has offered a work-preparedness and job training program for those joining the work force or reentering society. However, after 2008 market crash and the resulting unemployment, federal funding for job training was cut as there were so few jobs to fill nationwide. Currently, the enterprise continues to provide similar training, but for those who volunteer their time, often to fulfill court-ordered community service hours or rehabilitation requirements.

Richardson told the story of “James,” a young autistic man who volunteers twice a week at Leaf, Loaf & Ladle in order to gain work experience and independence. That week he had been in charge of portioning meat for a catered meal and peeling potatoes. “We love having him. Both of us are benefitting from the arrangement,” Richardson enthused. More generally, she noted the flexibility of the work Leaf, Loaf & Ladle offers; “There’s a place for everyone in food service.” Usually, about three volunteers fill the kitchen each day, though former volunteers are hired to help with the frequent catering events.

However, even as the mission of Leaf, Loaf & Ladle expands or alters with the uncertainties of the future, the underlying focus will stay the same. A constant theme, Richardson has noticed, is that “People can recover by giving back.” And the most rewarding aspect for both her and the volunteers is, and will continue to be the learning process and the resulting sense of accomplishment: “Knowing that the food they’re cooking is being served to 50 people right upstairs. And,” she added, “I get to be able to see people reconnect their lives through the vehicle of food.”

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Working again

When first diagnosed with a disability, Cliff Franklin, now employed in the advocacy division of RCIL, was told that in order to keep his government funding, he couldn’t ever get a job. “After being active my whole life, I couldn’t bear to hear that I couldn’t work again,” he said. That misleading message, he continued, was what motivates him to advocate so strongly for his consumers today.

“You probably haven’t gotten a clear definition of what we do in here the advocacy department,” he smiled wryly. I don’t know if a clear definition exists.” Day to day, Franklin works to help ensure the system’s integrity, so that those involved understand their options and can receive the services they have access to. For instance, when assisting people to find affordable housing, he advises that they take photos of any disrepair to ensure that the landlord doesn’t falsely accuse them of causing damage.

Franklin’s particularly dedicated to helping consumers navigate the system of social security, disability benefits, or the government programs available to help save money or receive help for substance abuse.That process involves conversations with consumers, many phone calls and inevitably, hours that extend past closing time on Friday night. To teach them, Franklin noted, “I take them by the hand and walk them through the process.” But Franklin can fully relate to the frustrations faced by consumers. 

“I had to go through those things myself,” he said. “I spent time in law libraries and talking to people, knocking my head against the wall” before figuring out all the paperwork. After being referred by someone to RCIL in 2005, he was hired as an employment specialist and has worked at the agency ever since. “As for advocacy, we’re all insane here,” he joked. “Every day’s a learning experience and something new pops up.”

However, despite long hours and challenging negotiations with the at-times-inefficient bureaucracy of government agencies, Franklin maintains his allegiance to the consumer; teaching them to advocate for their own rights and to take advantage of the opportunities available to them.  He said, “There’s the old saying, ‘When one door closes, another opens.’ Sometimes people just need help seeing the open door.”

- Katie J.