Mineral Wells Index, Mineral Wells, TX

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April 12, 2010

Helping others is her job

MINERAL WELLS — When it comes to social services, what people don’t know could not help them.

This was the case of at least one resident, Tony Hernandez. By the age of 55, Hernandez had lost his ability to work because of the combination of advanced side effects of insulin-dependent diabetes, high blood pressure and neuropathy. But he wasn’t yet eligible for Medicare to pay for ongoing needed health care.

In the process of trying to qualify for disability, he got bogged down by paperwork and “not much schooling,” he said, and was denied one year ago.

“I worked all my life,” said Hernandez, adding that he paid into Social Security. But when he tried on his own to qualify for disability, he said, “They didn’t pay any attention to me.”

In came the Mineral Wells Senior Center’s Community Advocacy Program, which began one year ago in March. Funded largely by the Brazos Foundation and the United Way of Palo Pinto County, the program helped change Hernandez’ situation by providing free, one-on-one access to a social worker each Wednesday.

According to Senior Center Executive Director Nancy Martin, Hernandez is one of many of the CAP program’s success stories. For the past year it has paid for Fort Worth-based social worker Cathy J. Torres to help Palo Pinto County residents with unmet needs, meet some immediate and long-term needs.

He was a janitor at the Palo Pinto Nursing Center for 10 years, but as his diseases progressed he could not work. He met Torres when he worked as a janitor at the Senior Center and she helped him qualify for disability.

“She took me to downtown Fort Worth to the Social Security office and talked for me,” he said. “Without her, I couldn’t have done it myself.”

“It helped me a lot. I couldn’t work much and was going blind. I didn’t know what to do,” he said.

Experience Works helped Hernandez get the Senior Center job, where he “worked 3½ hours a day to pay for medication. If they didn’t give me work, there was no way I could get my medicine or see a doctor,” he said.

“They were real nice and gave me another six months,” he said of Experience Works and the Senior Center. “They knew nobody else would hire me. That was a lot of help from Experience Works and the Senior Center,” he said. “They understood my problem and stood by me.”

But during the past year, his diseases progressed and he said “it was hard to work. I couldn’t see too good or walk too good.”

Not only was diabetes affecting his vision, Hernandez had to have his toes amputated. Add to this problems with neuropathy, which made it “hard to hold a broom,” and high blood pressure.

Before his disability, he said he would ration his medication. Now that he is qualified, he can buy medication.

“I feel better mentally because I’m going to get disability,” he said. “Without my medication, I’d probably be dead already. It’s not a good feeling when you can’t get no help. I can at least relax and feel better and not worry too much now because my disability has come through, which will cover medications and doctor visits.”

This is one of many local cases Torres has seen in the past year. Through the CAP program, she has helped seniors as well as people as young as 25, and even 9 years, “who fell by the wayside.”

About five years ago, Torres said she and the Senior Center’s Martin discussed, “what is needed is a social worker with individual, one-on-one [interaction and dialogue] on a regular and consistent basis.”

At that time, they were both working in Fort Worth and the prospect was seemingly insurmountable. But, since Martin started working in Mineral Wells, the idea became more plausible.

“It’s been a fun, challenging year,” she said of her work in Mineral Wells. “It’s real social work. They come in with a problem and in order to find resources for that problem, I have a series of questions I ask.”

Torres has been in social work for decades, working for state, city and private entities. She knows what to ask to connect people a variety of state, federal and other resources that might be available for them to help in lean times, from veteran’s services to drug company aide.

She compares this type of social work to “the roots on a tree – continually reaching out to find other services, programs and resources that are out there and, at the same time, trying to find resources and services for what they came in for.”

For instance, she said one client came in for help with utilities, but in the process she helped resolve other, longer-term needs. For this, she said she asks some personal questions and evaluates an individual’s income and expenses.

“I can evaluate [and find] prescription programs beyond Medicare-D [for seniors’ medication],” she said. “There’s no shortcut. It takes time, paperwork and a doctor’s signature.”

She said her goal is to make citizens seeking help more “knowledgeable and … on the way, teach” them about how to get resources.

This process requires responsibility and patience on the customer’s end, she said.

“I help them realize nothing happens like that,” Torres said, snapping her fingers.

In this area, she said she has seen a lack of understanding regarding what some of the information means and a lack of the ability for individuals to express themselves beyond the immediate issue they came in for.

Often, she added, there is a correlation between the current ailment and an incident that happened five to 20 years ago.

To those who might say they don’t agree with these entitlement programs or call them “hand outs,” she said most of the customers have paid into the programs like Social Security disability and food stamps.

Torres said some people she sees have said they were denied services but don’t fully understand why.

“I’ve found people don’t follow through, and say, ‘I don’t know why we were denied,’ and don’t take it further,” she said.

But there’s another side – that of the social services personnel. She said she has seen social workers in some states, like Texas, become so compartmentalized and, sometimes, not willing to take the time to fully help individuals with other resources for which they might qualify. For instance, if they are dealing with food stamps, that’s what they will address, when the person might also qualify for other resources.

“I know things change, but I believe in giving what we say we’re giving,” she said.

But she said she believes that “what goes around comes around” and she has seen this play out in her work. “I advocate all the way to the bank for people who have unmet needs.”

Since last March, when she started in Mineral Wells, Torres said 60 percent to 75 percent of the local individuals she has helped have been under 65 years of age, but all face economic issues. Her oldest client is over 80.

Torres comes to town each Wednesday and citizens can schedule an appointment through the Senior Center by calling at (940) 325-6470. Martin said Torres’ schedule has leveled off some so that she can take new customers of any age who need help with disability or finding resources.

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