Mail Tribune – Filling in the Cracks

Filling in the cracks

Help Now! center works within the system for benefit  of those who can’t

By JONEL ALECCIA
Medford Mail Tribune, December 4, 2004

There was a time when Tim McMullen didn’t need help from anyone.

He held a good job, owned his own home, drove his own car.

“I was fine,” says the 47-year-old Medford man.

A few years ago, everything changed.

McMullen started having seizures, sometimes daily, and had to stop driving. He contracted rheumatoid arthritis, which brought crippling pain. The medication he took caused osteoporosis, or brittle bone disease. Depression descended like a shroud.

Suddenly, McMullen needed lots of help — but there was no one to provide it.

Too young for most services, not disabled enough for others, McMullen failed to qualify for basic care to help him bathe and dress and keep his tiny apartment clean.

That’s when Betty Van Trump stepped in.

“He fell through the cracks,” said Van Trump, 60, a volunteer with Help Now! Advocacy Center, a new Medford nonprofit agency. “It took someone who took time to do the research and find out what was there to help.”

Within weeks, Van Trump obtained skilled care for McMullen through Providence Home Health Care in Medford.

“We wanted him to remain independent as long as he could,” she says. “I knocked on many, many doors.”

Slowly, those doors are beginning to open, not only for McMullen but also for about two dozen other early clients of the agency that aims to help vulnerable people navigate systems of government, social service and business.

Help Now! was founded in March by Laurence Kahn, 57, a former Washington, D.C., lawyer and father of a son diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Kahn spent a dozen years running a for-profit legal negotiation and advocacy business in the nation’s capital.

After moving west for his son’s care, first to San Diego, Calif., and then to the Rogue Valley in 2001, Kahn decided to transfer his skills to non-legal issues by training advocates to broker solutions for folks who can’t help themselves.

“Quite candidly, we’re affecting lives more than I thought we would,” said Kahn.

It’s a niche just waiting to be filled, local health officials said. The budget proposed this week by Gov. Ted Kulongoski offers $2.5 billion for human services, a figure that guarantees cuts in human services, analysts contend. It’s only the latest decrease in a series of declines for programs that serve elderly, disabled and poor people in Oregon.

With fewer programs available for fewer people, a service that helps clients navigate the system is vital, says Don Bruland, director of senior and disability services for the Rogue Valley Council of Governments.

“Sometimes it just takes more time and more skills for a person to really articulate what their needs are and why they may qualify for something,” Bruland said. “I think they may be able to help some people who fall between the cracks now.”

But before Help Now! begins assisting clients, the agency has to build up its own resources, Kahn said. With a shoestring budget of $70,000 and promises of a county-funded lease for office space, Help Now! is working to increase its all-volunteer staff.

In particular, Kahn would like to add to the eight to 10 advocates available to serve clients. He’s seeking volunteers who possess the patience and desire to untangle the web of agencies and regulations that sometimes snarl services; he’s also looking for people to negotiate business disputes.

And he needs donations to make his dream of advocacy possible.

“I know that I can teach lay people to do this. It’s not rocket science,” said Kahn. “They don’t need to have done it before. I need to assess that they’re people of reasonable intelligence, but what is more important is that they’re resourceful.”

Current advocates have helped with a range of situations. Van Trump helped McMullen find in-home care. Another advocate helped a social service client change caseworkers. Another advocate stepped in to prevent a disabled person from being wrongfully charged in a criminal case.

“I’ve thought for a long time that we’ve needed an advocacy agency. It’s the It’s the kind of thing that’s a good ‘checks and balance’ in our system,” said Hank Collins, Jackson County health director. “I certainly support what they’re trying to do Help Now! can’t accept client referrals until the agency is fully staffed with advocates, Kahn emphasized. He’s afraid the new nonprofit firm will be overwhelmed with requests for help.

“I don’t want Help Now! to be ‘Help Later,’ ” he said.

McMullen agrees. Help Now! has been one of the few places he can turn for understanding, advice and assistance when the pain gets too bad.

“I think Larry can do things,” McMullen said, wincing as he settled back into an easy chair. “Once he gets the attention of people — the doctors and the agencies — once he gets that credibility, I think he’ll be able to help people like me.”

For information about Help Now! Advocacy Center, call 541-732-1911 or visit www.helpnowadvocacy.org on the Web.

Reach reporter JoNel Aleccia at 776-4465, or e-mail jaleccia@mailtribune.com

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