AYA and MDHHS partnership usher in greater access to assistance for youth in need

In the United States 11 million children were found to live below the poverty line. In Michigan, many programs such as Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in place to alleviate some of the stressors that people in poverty face. However, for young people lack of understanding of the systems and lack of access can stand in the way of getting the help they need.

Organizations like the AYA Youth Collective have stepped in. Through a partnership with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), AYA has created a new position to help youth ages 14-24 get the assistance they need.
Rapid Growth Media connected with Lauren Van Keulen, CEO of AYA to discuss the new partnership, the potential impact on youth and plans for the future.
Rapid Growth Media: How did this partnership between AYA and MDHHS come about?
Courtesy Lauren Van Keulen 
Lauren Van Keulen: This partnership started with myself, and our VP of programs KJ Tucker in conversation with Tracy Chapman, who was the then director of DHHS on their eligibility side. We discussed many issues we see with young people being able to access benefits and all of the different avenues we have tried to help the issue. In that conversation she mentioned looking at piloting a new project where we have eligibility specialists on site with community-based organizations.
RGM: What will the new eligibility specialist mean for the youth who use your services?
 Courtesy AYA Facebook page
LK: This project is the first of its kind in the state of Michigan that focuses on youth who are experiencing homelessness or in foster care. An eligibility specialist being on site at AYA’s drop-in center allows that person, Rachelle Blauwkamp, to develop relationships with young people and quickly resolve their cases. Prior to Rochelle being on site at AYA, we had less than a 15% success rate for youth who had applied for Medicaid or food stamps (SNAP) and then actually received them. This was largely because in applying for Medicaid, for food stamps, sending in the application is doable but after that the process is really difficult, especially for young people who have a phone that only works on Wi-Fi. Missing three calls from DHHS leads to their case being thrown out entirely. Now youth are able to apply for Medicaid with Rachelle, have their appointment with Rachelle and receive their card. She's been able to turn around Medicaid cards and food stamp food benefits as soon as the next day and we've had a 100% success rate.
RGM: What are your hopes for the future of AYA and with this new partnership?
LK: (Kent) County ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds and the commissioners funded AYA’s comprehensive health initiative, which is the initiative that houses all these different growth opportunities in the area of health and wellness, which is a really big barrier for young people. The top three barriers that youth say prevent their access to health and wellness are a lack of transportation, a fear of the system and stigma that they've experienced in prior bad experiences. By bringing health and wellness partnerships right to AYA, we're eliminating all three of those barriers. We provide bus passes and other forms of transportation, and we're located very centrally in a place youth can access. As part of our growth, we're expanding our partnership with Catherine's Health Center, a federally qualified health center, to serve more young people, and now that youth will be able to be enrolled in Medicaid, it will be easier for them to be served by a federally qualified health centers. We have partnerships with a variety of other core partners for our comprehensive health initiative including Health Net of West Michigan, Arbor Circle and a few therapists. Adding DHHS will allow us to continue to meet the need.
RGM: How can any youth reading this access your services?
LK: Everything is on our website, but they can also stop by. We're open noon to 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday for any young person between the ages of 14 and 24. We're open on Wednesdays for parenting youth to bring their kids in. We're also going to be adding evening hours in the spring. Youth can also contact us on social media, via e-mail and via phone. What ever way a young person feels comfortable getting involved with us will work.
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