With his ever-present bicycle and lawnmower, Wayne is proof that people with developmental disabilities can find happiness and fulfillment while living independently in the community. But he cannot do it alone.
He requires regular assistance from Volunteers of America staff to ensure he pays his bills on time, he is eating right and he goes to the doctor.
We at Volunteers of America cannot do our work alone either. Programs for people like Wayne depend on funding from the state, which is in jeopardy.
The Governor’s proposed budget, now under debate in the special legislative session, includes deep cuts that would cripple services for Louisiana’s most vulnerable residents. For Volunteers of America and those we serve, these cuts would effectively end our programs for more than 1,900 Louisianans, including programs for people with disabilities and mental health issues.
Under this proposal, at least 573 staff members across Louisiana may lose their jobs. That is 40 percent of our statewide workforce of 1,400 people employed by three Volunteers of America affiliates– North Louisiana, Greater Baton Rouge and Southeast Louisiana.
The faces behind the 573 lost jobs are mothers and fathers, caregivers, individuals who chose a life of service to others and trusted that they would be able to provide for their own families at the same time. Donny Jackson is one of these individuals.
In October 2000, Donny, Volunteers of America North Louisiana’s Director of Supervised Independent Living, began serving Wayne, who required support to live in the community. Today, almost 18 years later, Donny is still working at Volunteers of America and he sees Wayne at least once a week. They are family.
Donny has weathered many changes in his program over the past 18 years – name changes, funding changes, regulatory changes – just to name a few. However, the dignified, loving care he and his colleagues provide to individuals, like Wayne, has remained constant.
With Donny’s help, individuals with disabilities are able to participate in mainstream society through work, relationships, and community involvement. He currently has 50 clients, and some of them require 24-hour care. He works diligently to ensure each person receives quality care and services to help him or her live independently.
Yet due to forces completely out of his control, it becomes harder every year for Donny to pursue his calling. Louisiana’s chronic budget instability has pushed disability service programs like Donny’s to the brink of collapse.
The problem is simple: the state legislature has failed to provide adequate compensation for the services we deliver. Not only have our reimbursement rates not increased to keep pace with rising costs, our rates have actually declined over the last decade.
We stretch every penny to cover wages, benefits, training, supervision and the oversight required by the state. The legislature has declined to restore our reimbursement rate to appropriate levels even as our costs and community needs rise. Nevertheless, the truth is that when the state has invested in us, we are investing back in our community and changing lives.
We have created new, permanent positions and improved wages and benefits for existing staff. And we offer opportunities for people like Donny to find a career that not only pays the bills, but also brings meaning and purpose to their lives and the lives of people we serve, like Wayne.
Volunteers of America has been working in Louisiana for 122 years (82 years in Shreveport). Thanks to individual investors who commit to multi-year pledges, private foundations and generous supporters, we are here for the long haul. And, given an assurance of steady investment by the state, we could and would do even more across north and central Louisiana.
Investments in providers like Volunteers of America North Louisiana are investments in our community’s most vulnerable people, with real returns. These investments should be as much a priority for our state as any. We urge our legislators to remember this truth during the difficult choices they face this year.
Chuck Meehan is President/CEO of Volunteers of America North Louisiana