Most of us will, at some point, face a life crisis — divorce, job loss, illness, eviction. In the United States, 95% of social safety nets are provided by charity organizations and NGOs, so finding help in a crisis situation can be confusing and distressing. Erine Gray is the founder of Aunt Bertha, a free-to-use online platform that makes it easy for anyone in the US to find and apply for social services — anything from Medicare to food stamps to housing — just by typing in a ZIP code. Aunt Bertha serves people in all 50 states, with in-depth coverage in Texas, Colorado, Central Florida, and Richmond, Virginia. Starting this week, Aunt Bertha has added New York City to its in-depth coverage list. We took this moment to talk to Gray about how Aunt Bertha was born, how it works and how it’s shaping up to be a valuable tool not just for families and individuals in need but for policy makers, advocates and community workers as well.
Aunt Bertha started as a response to an illness in your own family. Can you tell us about your experience?
I grew up in a small town called Olean, New York, an hour south of Buffalo. When I was almost 17, in the summer of 1992, my mom, who worked as a janitor at the community college at the time, caught a rare disease called encephalitis. She needed to be rushed to Sayre, Pennsylvania, which was a four-hour drive. She flatlined twice on the way there, but made it to see a brain specialist. She went into a coma and survived, but she suffered brain damage. Her memory was essentially wiped out — everything after her childhood and the first few years of the birth of her first daughter was gone. She had no memory of me and my little sister.
She was released from the hospital three months later. It was me and my dad and my sister, just trying to figure out how to take care of her. Obviously you don’t get a certification for these types of things. Nobody is ever really prepared. She recovered, to some extent, but she suffered from seizures on a regular basis—they would sometimes knock her out for the day. My dad did the best he could to take care of her, and he did, for nine years. He did it alone for the most part. We didn’t know what services were available. And when we did find programs, it was difficult to get through the application process.
I went off to college, studied computer science, but ended up getting my degree from Indiana University in economics. I was working as a contractor in Austin, Texas, when I got a call from my dad. He needed help. My mother was getting older and started to have early-onset dementia. I flew up to New York and packed her things, and moved her to Texas, and became her legal guardian. So there I was—unprepared—trying to figure out how to navigate a system for somebody who needed help.
What kinds of services are available with people in this position?
Unfortunately there are not a lot of resources available for older adults with mental illness in the US. There are private care facilities, but these are financially unattainable for many. All too often, people either end up in the prison systems, homeless or, if they’re lucky—in a nursing home.
I went through a long process of looking for a nursing home, but many of them discriminated against people with signs of mental illness. If you think about it from their perspective, they don’t want people who might want to run away, or people who are difficult to deal with. We must have been rejected by 15 to 20 nursing homes. I had a social worker give me advice on how to find a place that would take her. She told me to dress up, wear a jacket and go meet the administrators in person. I’d be invited to submit an application—but the only response I would get would be very concise rejection letters that said, “We can’t meet your mother’s needs.” It seemed at the time to be a legal form of discrimination.
It was navigating this system for somebody who’s disabled that made me see how broken the system really is. So I went back to graduate school and got my masters in public policy from the LBJ School of Public Affairs here in Austin. I ended up working as a contractor for the state of Texas, essentially looking at improving the way people find out about social service programs like food stamps, the food subsidy program in the US, Medicaid, the US welfare program and how they apply for them. The company I worked for also ran a call center that helped people get enrolled into these programs.
During those four years, 2006 to 2010, there was a big economic downturn. Texas is the second largest state in the US—a huge, huge economy . Enrollment levels grew significantly, but the state didn’t have the capacity to deal with that much growth. So it was a challenge to figure out how to get everyone connected with what they needed. On most nights, my car was the last car in the parking lot. I’d analyze calls, and realized a lot of people were ringing just to say, “Hey, did you receive my application for food stamps?” “Or I sent you a fax, can you confirm you got it?” We figured out pretty quickly that this information was stored in the system, so our team redesigned the menu, allowing much more self-service. This meant people in need could get answers in 30 seconds rather than having to wait on hold for 30 minutes.
We worked on several big projects like this that made things more efficient. The number of calls and the amount of time spent taking them went down. These efforts helped turn the project into an operation that could scale.
It was this work, as well as my family’s experience caring for my mother, that led to the idea for Aunt Bertha. I thought to myself, “Well, if we can visualize data for complex programs like the food stamps program, would more self-service options in social services be cheaper to implement and less frustrating for the person in need?” And that was the a-ha moment—the big idea.
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