In our second installment of profiles about our participants, we’re pleased to introduce you to Rebecca Manning, one of our New York corps members:
Tell us about the work that you’re doing at your placement:
I work at a non-profit in NY called the Medicare Rights Center. Prior to working here, my only knowledge about Medicare was that it was a healthcare system available to people over the age of 65. Although true, Medicare is an incredibly complex and specific system that is confusing for me, a 22 year old who was trained extensively on it during my orientation with MRC. If it’s still confusing for me, imagine how confusing, and at times, infuriating, it can be for people over 65.
That’s why MRC exists. We strive to help provide access to affordable health care to both older people (over 65) and people who have disabilities. We provide free phone counseling to Medicare beneficiaries, with any possible question they may have about Medicare. Our goal is to help people with Medicare understand their rights and benefits, and secure the quality of health care that they deserve.
When I first started, I thought there was absolutely no way I could be of any help to this organization. Not a great way to start a new job, I realize, but that’s the way I felt. As I mentioned, I had limited knowledge of Medicare when I started a few months ago. How could I help anyone answer difficult Medicare questions if I barely knew what it was? After a thorough training, where I watched hours and hours for days, maybe even weeks, of Medicare webinars, I became an expert on Medicare. MRC trains every new staff member and volunteer until they dream in Medicare terms. I actually had a nightmare about premiums a few weeks ago.
After training, I jumped right into the helpline, where I do three shifts per week. The helpline is the heart of MRC. Any Medicare beneficiary or caregiver of a beneficiary can call us Monday through Friday with any question or problem related to Medicare. So far, my work on the helpline has been eye-opening, as cliché as that sounds. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the helpline keeps me constantly on my feet. It is both exciting and terrifying.
Most people are very grateful for our help. Even just answering the phone and actually listening to their issues is more than they get from a lot of other organizations; a lot of our clients say we are the first people that actually listen and attempt to resolve their issues. It’s always rewarding to hear their warm feelings about MRC. It makes the hard work we do worth it.
I’ll share a helpline story to give a better sense of day-to-day here. A week or so ago, a 92 year-old woman called our helpline because her monthly premiums were increasing, and she was wondering about potential options. After I discussed some options with her, I inquired about her monthly income, which is something we ask all of our callers to see if they may be eligible for low-income programs that could help pay for their Medicare costs. The woman told me she made $900 from Social Security each month. In New York, if you’re a single individual making less than $1,333/monthly, you are eligible for the Medicare Savings Program, which pays the full Part B premium, a monthly savings of $104.90. She had never even heard of the program, so she had been paying the premium for 27 years when she didn’t have to. That’s $33,987.60 she could have saved, and we were the first organization to ever even inform her of this option, in the 27 years she had been a Medicare beneficiary.
Although she must have been unimaginably frustrated by how much money she could have saved had she known about this program earlier, she was grateful that we told her about it at all. We’re helping her apply now. Even though I wish she had called us earlier, I’m still just glad she called us at all. Now, she can save this money going forward. More importantly, she can have access to affordable healthcare. Hopefully, she will no longer have to decide between buying groceries for the week and getting her prescription drugs. These are real problems that our callers experience on a daily basis, so being able to offer assistance in any way is our mission.
What was your relationship to social justice work before AVODAH?
I was involved in a lot of social justice work in high school. For example, I campaigned in Maine to legalize same-sex marriage, which it now is. I also was involved with the Emancipation Network, which helps fight human trafficking and modern-day slavery. It helps survivors rebuild their lives, through economic empowerment, education, and help reintegrating into society. I also was involved with a program called the Siddhartha School Project. The Siddhartha School is a school in Ladakh, India, where children have access to high-quality education, while honoring their religious traditions. The Siddhartha School is really important because Ladakh is one of the last places in the world where traditional Tibetan Buddhist culture is unrepressed. This school allows children to express their religion in a nonthreatening and welcoming environment.
My social justice work in high school generally focused on giving humankind as a whole the tools to live up to their fullest potentials. I didn’t think it was fair for gay people to not be able to marry who they want to marry, or for Buddhists to be unable to express their religion, or for victims of human trafficking be stuck in that situation for the rest of their lives. I wanted to work for people to be able to live fully, to their greatest potential.
I didn’t do as much social justice work in college. I volunteered at the local soup kitchen with my sorority on Sundays, and I was in charge of fundraising efforts for a local domestic violence shelter in Colorado Springs. I mentored at-risk youth in the Colorado Springs community throughout my four years in school. I wish I had gotten more involved in social justice work at Colorado College. I think that’s part of the reason that I wanted to do AVODAH, to get more involved again.
What led you to AVODAH?
Unlike the 70% of Avodahniks that came to AVODAH through knowing someone beforehand, I did not know anyone who had done AVODAH. I think only two people had done AVODAH from Colorado College before, so it wasn’t very well known at CC.
My sister did a JDC Global program in Ukraine after she graduated college for a year, and she recommended general Jewish service organizations. I think I Googled that – “Jewish service fellowships,” or something comparable, and AVODAH came up. I applied to a bunch of different yearlong service organizations, but I was drawn to AVODAH. I was interested in working in one of the different cities where we have houses; I’ve never really lived in a city, so the idea of living in one of these big cities was exciting. I was also interested in the communal living aspect. The idea of moving to a new city without knowing anyone terrified me, so having an automatic network of people, that I would hopefully become friends with was comforting. It seemed like it would be an easier transition out of college than another “real world” job.
I was interested in exploring both my Jewish identity and my interest in social justice work. I’ve never been around a lot of Jews; I’ve always been one of the only Jews amongst my friends. Even in my family, my dad’s side is Catholic, so only half my family is Jewish. I thought it would be interesting to live with a group of Jews, with both similar and different Jewish backgrounds to me. It’s nothing I’ve ever done before, and it sounded like a cool opportunity. I was also interested in how Judaism and social justice work relate to each other. This is still something I’m curious about; I hope to figure out a more concrete answer, or at least have a better understanding about this relationship by the end of my year with AVODAH.
What have you learned?
Over the past two and a half months, I’ve learned a lot – I’ve learned a lot about Medicare and life in the “real world,” and a lot about relationships and communal living.
Living in the bayit has been both rewarding and complicated. This was one of the parts of AVODAH that I was most worried about. The idea of living with 12 other people for an entire year that I had never met was pretty terrifying, I’m not going to lie. How could it not be? I already did the freshman year random roommate thing, why was I doing it again? I had to remind myself that although terrifying, the communal living aspect was also a huge reason I was drawn to AVODAH in the first place, so I just had to embrace it.
I think that’s how everyone in our bayit came into AVODAH – a bit skeptical but open to the experience. Everyone’s openness has created for an incredible sense of community. I say that honestly; the communal living aspect, although it can be difficult, is one of the most incredible parts of AVODAH. My fellow AVODAHniks are my closest friends in the city, and have become like a second family to me here in NYC, a city that, without them, may be lonely. Living with them has shown me to ignore first impressions and what we perceive a person to be. Not everyone in the bayit is someone that I would most likely be friends with had I not done AVODAH. I’m so glad that AVODAH threw us in an apartment in Washington Heights together and forced us to be friends, because they are some of the most inspiring, passionate, and intelligent people I’ve ever met.
I’ve learned to compromise and trust others through living communally. For example, everyone puts in $20 each week for groceries. A few people cook dinner each night for everyone, and all the food in the apartment belongs to the group. This whole idea worried me at first; trusting other people with your money is scary, especially when money is so tight in AVODAH. But communal cooking and grocery shopping has been one of my favorite parts of the whole bayit experience. After having a hard day at work, there’s nothing better than getting home to a hot meal made by my roommates, sitting back and discussing our days with other people who actually want to listen.
My general Medicare expertise has skyrocketed, as I mentioned before. It’s essential to know about Medicare when talking to beneficiaries who call us, but having general Medicare knowledge is crucial for other reasons. It’s an issue that affects everyone in the US; whether or not you are 65, you will know someone who will turn 65 and become Medicare eligible. I’ve already had conversations with family members who are either eligible, or will become eligible soon, and having this knowledge base has been helpful to talking them through any confusion they may be having.
On a broader level, I have really learned about the level of poverty in the US. We screen all of our callers for low-income benefits at the end of our calls to see if they may be eligible. It sometimes shocks me to hear how low some callers’ monthly incomes are. In AVODAH, we are given a very modest stipend to live on for the year. It’s not a lot, but it is still so much more than so many of the people I work with. Apart from that, we are doing AVODAH for a year; we chose to live on a stipend, and we will most likely find a job after AVODAH that has a regular salary. We have an end date for this level of income, whereas most of these callers don’t. We also don’t have the expenses that so many of them do: expensive prescriptions, mortgages, rent, children, etc…Working at my placement has shown me the level of poverty in the US, and the need for more affordable healthcare here.
On a more positive note, working at MRC has shown me how appreciative people can be if you offer them even a little bit of help. I am not kidding when I say that a caller last week told me she loved me after I helped her select a prescription drug plan. I have had numerous callers tell me they want to take me out to lunch to thank me for all my help. At a senior health fair, a woman actually asked me if I had a roommate because her niece was looking for one. I neglected to tell her that, yes, I did have a roommate; in fact, I have 12. Working here has shown me how sometimes, people just need a little bit of help, and they are so appreciative when they get it. I think for the most part, people are good-hearted, they just come across difficult situations that make them act otherwise.
We’ve engaged in extensive text study during AVODAH programming, and analyzed them through a social justice lens. One program that I really enjoyed was looking at different perspectives of Shabbat from various people and texts. Some discussed Shabbat as a communal practice; others stressed the individual importance of it. Some expressed it as an ever-evolving practice, whereas others stressed the importance of the static nature of Shabbat. This program was fascinating to me, because I had not thought about Shabbat through these different lenses. What defines it? What does it mean to different people? How much can Shabbat change, while still holding the true essence of “Shabbat?” This program forced me to reexamine the idea of Shabbat, and what it means in our modern society. This is something I hope to look further into throughout the year.
How do you define social justice?
Social justice means striving for equality amongst people of all different backgrounds and cultures. It means promoting tolerance and freedom. It means providing everyone, regardless of their race, gender, socioeconomic status, etc…equal opportunities to reach their fullest potentials. I think it’s important that, in order to strive for social justice, you have to be okay with being uncomfortable, and being challenged. Nothing will ever change if you don’t challenge norms and stand up for your beliefs, which will undoubtedly result in discomfort.