“If I made your day a little bit better before you picked up the phone and called, or before you came in to see me, that’s huge.”

As I walked into Leatrice Fullerton’s office at the Disability Network in downtown Kalamazoo, I felt immediately welcomed. Leatrice, a Kalamazoo native, is one of the three Information and Referral Specialists at Disability Network.  She takes calls from individuals in the counties that they serve and refers them to resources in the community. As she describes, “We link people to different services or items that they need in the community. You know, you may get someone who needs help with a utilities shut off, or you might get someone who needs assistance finding subsidized housing. So we link people up to different services in their area”. Leatrice also runs a support group that is comprised of local women with differing abilities. This includes discussing a phenomenal woman every week, and helping members to find resources.

On top of her busy schedule at the Disability Network, Leatrice also works as a part-time social worker at Ministry with Community. This includes outreach, food and clothing referrals, and verification letters for the sliding fee scale at the Family Health Center. She explains, “Our goal there is to link people with helping agencies in the community…[for example] ‘Oh, you’re looking for housing, well, meet up with this agency, they are here on Thursdays and they can assist with finding subsidized housing in the area’.”

Leatrice says one great thing about working in the Kalamazoo community is constantly learning about different organizations and the services they offer. She especially notes the importance of help for  individuals to sign up for an insurance plan through the healthcare.gov website. Leatrice received training and information about the ACA through Ministry with Community, Bronson Hospital, and the College of Health and Human Services at Western Michigan University. The training covered Enroll Kalamazoo’s purpose and the organizations where someone can sign up for an insurance plan with the help of an application counselor.

When asked about how she assists clients, Leatrice said, “What I do, personally is, ‘Oh you want to sign up for the sliding fee [at the Family Health Center]? Have you applied for Medicaid yet?’. And sometimes they’ll say ‘Yes, I’m still waiting’ or sometimes they’ll say, ‘No, I can do that? I thought it was only for pregnant people or women with children’. Sometimes it is a pleasant surprise when they go ‘Oh, wow! I’m eligible! I can apply for this’. So they go and they still get the sliding fee scale, but in the meantime they are applying for Medicaid. So once that kicks in, then they are eligible for services at different doctors’ offices, because when they go to the Family Health Center, they are pretty much limited to the Family Health Center unless they need some kind of specialized care.”

Leatrice says there has been some pushback from people who don’t want to sign up, but feels some of this is due to the bad publicity, or even the alternative name for the ACA, Obamacare. “It is hard for people to understand….you hear all those ads and you get a person who is uninsured, and you go, ‘Well do you have any insurance?’[and they reply] “Oh, are you talking about that Obamacare? I don’t want that Obamacare!”.  And you go ‘Well, no, it’s Medicaid’ and they go, “Oh, okay”. So they’re misinformed because, for some reason, personal beliefs or whatever, disagree with the way everything happened, so they have a bad taste in their mouth.”

Leatrice predicts that with the implementation of the ACA, there could be a huge impact on the community and the organizations she works with. For example, Ministry with Community will have fewer people who need assistance with medication copays if they are insured. This could leave more funding for Ministry to use for other services. Enrolling people in Kalamazoo County allowed different organizations to come together to work for a greater cause. Leatrice believes, “It was an opportunity for normal, everyday people to learn about these different agencies and an opportunity for these agencies to learn about each other as well”. Organizations such as Bronson, Planned Parenthood, Borgess, C.A.R.E.S., and Western Michigan University worked together to inform people, regardless if they have worked together in the past or their views on other issues.

Leatrice feels that while many people are covered under the ACA, it will take some community outreach and education to get people to see a doctor. She suggested effective outreach strategies such as medical personnel coming to summer events in the community, blood pressure check up clinics, or informative events in school for both the parents and the kids.  She has seen some of this work done at her daughter’s elementary school in Kalamazoo, including teaching kids the importance of getting a check-up.  “You’re getting in the kids’ minds that need to go to the doctor, and then they are going to get on their parents’ nerves until they take them to the doctor”. Leatrice believes that to fix some of these issues, there needs to be a culture change. Even if you get people insured, they have to understand how they use their insurance and actually seek medical care.

When asked about her favorite part of her job, Leatrice enthusiastically responded, “Helping people!”. She says it can be hard at times to gauge success because once you help people, especially at a place like Ministry with Community, they tend not to come back because they don’t need those services any longer. Her philosophy when working with clients is, “We try to give them three alternatives if they call for different things. So you know if they hang up the phone and go, ‘Oh, that was huge!’…Or the people you help at Ministry who came into your office with nothing but motivation to get out [of their current situation], and they have an apartment now”. She also shared a story about working with a woman at Disability Network who had lost her vision. The woman had loved to read, but was no longer able to. Leatrice introduced her to books in audio format, and got an employee from the Kalamazoo Public Library to come down and teach the woman how to use the audio tapes. Now the woman is listening to books on tape and checking them out non-stop.
Leatrice’s passion for helping others and making change within her community was evident throughout the whole interview. I believe she sums up best the impact of her job, “The greatest accomplishment I guess, to sum it all up, is if I made your day a little bit better before you picked up the phone and called, or before you came in to see me, that’s huge. ‘Cause life is a mess.”

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