Mike Blais, an AmeriCorps member, helps clients complete their applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Elizabeth is 60 years old and has never received benefits from any type of safety net program. She worked in vision care most of her life and has a loyal network of friends. A car accident with an uninsured driver left her disabled, unable to work and paying more than $700 in medical expenses each month. Her husband recently passed away from cancer and she currently lives with her mother-in-law on no income.

On a sunny Tuesday morning, Elizabeth visited the Orland Township Administration office for assistance with her Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) application. Mike Blais, an AmeriCorps member working for the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s SNAP Outreach Program, was there to help.

Properly completing the SNAP application can be a process clouded by misinformation, so Food Depository staff and trained volunteers visit food pantries, older adult sites and community centers throughout Cook County to provide eligibility pre-screenings, application assistance, and education on SNAP – the safety net program formerly known as Food Stamps. Locally, the program is managed and directed by the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS).

“There are a number of factors that can make it difficult for eligible clients to receive SNAP benefits,” said Mike. “The application itself is 11 pages of small print that can be very hard to fully comprehend. Also, there is an unnecessary, but very real, stigma attached to seeking and receiving SNAP benefits. It is difficult for many people to understand whether or not they are eligible for assistance programs. And the IDHS offices can only provide so much technical support given the number of applicants.”

After Elizabeth answered some pre-screening questions about her household, disability status, income, medical expenses and more; Mike guided her through each step of the application and ensured that she had all of the required identification and documentation. Based upon Elizabeth’s answers and information, Mike determined her to be potentially eligible. He submitted her complete application to DHS and explained the next steps to expect.

“By the end of a meeting with a client, I have generally dispelled some myth or misconception about SNAP benefits,” said Mike. “Many people assume that if they are working or receiving any form of income, they are ineligible; when in fact, SNAP is designed to work with low-income and no-income persons. Many people applying are underemployed, meaning they are working, but cannot earn enough money to meet their needs.”

Rose was one such client at the Orland Township Administration that day. An entrepreneur who operates a business from her home, Rose has suffered financially as her sales tumbled during the economic downturn. With very little income and depleted savings, she has been trying to support herself while providing financial assistance for her two adult daughters and her grandchildren. Rose’s earnings simply aren’t enough to keep up with her mortgage payments, insurance premiums and taxes.

Rose had applied for SNAP once before and was denied due to insufficient detail of her self-employment. On Tuesday, Mike assisted Rose as she reapplied for SNAP with proper documentation and explanation of her self-employment status.

Clients who come to SNAP Outreach sessions are connected with additional Food Depository resources.

In a few weeks, Elizabeth and Rose will receive follow-up calls from the Food Depository’s SNAP Outreach staff. The purpose of these calls is to check how a client is doing with the DHS process and answer any questions that may have arisen since the application. These calls are placed only to clients who offer consent. Clients also receive information to access additional Food Depository network resources.

Next week, Mike will complete his AmeriCorps assignment at the Food Depository. During the past 11 months, he has helped hundreds of people like Elizabeth and Rose submit their SNAP applications. Last fiscal year, the Food Depository’s SNAP Outreach program provided assistance to more than 3,000 households.

“This past year has made me much more knowledgeable about safety net programs, community resources, SNAP policy and of course the Food Depository,” said Mike. “Working SNAP Outreach has given me a tremendous amount of compassion for people and families who are living through difficult situations. I look forward to serving them in future endeavors.”

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