When an individual has Social Security benefits paid to them because of a diagnosis of mental illness or a developmental disability, the Representative Payee Program helps those individuals manage their money.
Started by Episcopal Social Services, the program has been in place for 20 years. It originally served the Wichita area as well, but split off into separate branches when they each grew to support such a large number of clients that they were able to stand on their own.
Katie Reese, director of the Representative Payee Program for the past 10 years, is a social worker and a member of St. Matthew's Episcopal Church.
"They said they needed a director and I said I'd do it," Reese said. "The congregation and the people of the church see it as a mission for our church."
The program currently serves 135 clients in Newton, Salina, McPherson, Hutchinson and Greensburg.
"We have a few elderly clients who have been referred to us because they have been exploited," Reese explained. "We believe — and Social Security does as well — that this keeps people from becoming homeless because the rent is always paid, the utilities are paid and we make sure they have money for food."
Reese said they try to take on clients as soon as they are put into a payee system so that they start receiving their benefits as quickly as possible.
"For me, having our clients meet with people in the community is another way of showing them we respect them and show them dignity," Reese said. "Our volunteers figure out a budget with the client...and go over any questions they have about their budget or about the checkbook. We're very transparent; they can look at their bank statements, they can look at their checkbook."
Some clients want to become their own payee. For those people, Reese gives them a small amount of their benefits to manage. If they prove responsible with the initial amount, they are given a larger percentage to handle. Reese said very few clients are able to reach full independence, though, as there is not only the work of handling money and paying bills, but the daunting task of dealing with the mountains of paperwork that accompanies Social Security and Medicare.
"People with mental illness have difficulty handling the stress of managing everything," Reese said, "the Social Security paperwork is overwhelming."
The Representative Payee Program has a good reputation in the community, Reese said, which allows them to help facilitate any large purchase a client wishes to make by negotiating payment plans with businesses. It also helps to work out payment plans for such incidents as unexpected dental expenses.
A Client Needs Fund is also available to help with unexpected expenses that a client is not able to pay.
Disagreements do arise over how the money is spent, but the payee is ultimately entrusted with the final say.
"That's what I tell them — I wouldn't like it if someone was managing my money," Reese said, "I understand...but we don't withhold anything from them. If they have extra money, they get that extra money."
"We also confront companies who market in very aggressive ways," Reese said. "Sometimes we'll get a huge telephone bill or cable bill, so we go back to the company and try to talk about that."
Reese said while clients are able to purchase such services, they may not always understand the consequences. The program will try to negotiate payment plans, but it is often the case the client's budget will not allow them to continue the service and companies are rarely willing to work with the clients to accept payments plans to pay off costs incurred.
"We think it's very important to pay your debts and be responsible for your actions," Reese said.
Reese noted the system is set up so there is one person who writes checks for the client, another person who enters checks into a computer accounting system, and a third person who reconciles those numbers with the client's bank statements.
The Representative Payee Program employs three people on a part-time basis and has 30 volunteers who spend one to two hours a week meeting with the clients and writing checks.
"(The volunteers) are faithful. Some of them have been here since the beginning," Reese said.
The program's volunteers not only come from the congregation of St. Matthew's, but also from other area churches and the community.
"They need to be able to sign their name and to use a calculator," Reese said. "The most important thing for our volunteers...is the interaction with the client, building that trust. It's a fairly simple thing to do — to write check and manage a checkbook — but the result is huge. The clients are always very grateful."
For more information about the Representative Payee Program or to volunteer, call (316) 283-3465.