Luckily, I had a meeting with my professor this particular afternoon as we planned on going over the papers that I had submitted for better ideas and context. And it just so happened he asked me about my profile paper that I was supposed to write up for an assignment. The assignment was to interview someone on the campus so that it could possibly be featured in the school paper. When I told him that I tried to reach out to this staff member with no response, he immediately called her up and asked if I could come over for a few to ask some questions.
I dashed across campus as soon as I finished up with my professor and ran up the stair. I went to the office and told the student who is working as a receptionist that I was there to interview Mary Turner, who is the Coordinator and Student Facilitator for the KEYS Program at Reading Area Community College. She phoned and told her I can go right in.
When I walked in Mary apologized for not responding to my email about interviewing her and I brushed it off as if it wasn’t a big deal. It really wasn’t as I knew she had her hands full with being the head boss for the program as well as case managing a lot of students. I sat down and pulled out my notebook and started asking my questions.
The KEYS Program is a state-run program that’s designed to help students who receive benefits through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families also known as cash assistance and/or Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program also known as food stamps. Mostly known for in community colleges in Pennsylvania
I asked Mary what her thoughts on welfare recipients utilizing the welfare to work program to return back to school. She said, “I feel like education is the pathway to education. My fear is that people will go back to work and remain struggling without the necessary skills and education to advance further at a job.”
Mary grabbed a mug that had a tea bag tag hanging from it. “Sorry, I have a cold.” Then blew her nose and popped a cough drop in her mouth. With being on campus, typically I see young students who are eager about their futures, but to Mary she sees things completely different. “Most of my students are single mothers with two or more kids over the age of 25 with no family support that affects their ability to have child care, transportation, and even housing. Some of these women are also dealing with domestic violence, mental illnesses, and possibly recovering from substance abuse.” She shifts in the chair and her body language doesn’t show fear or nervousness. “
With the new rules being presented to the House of Representatives for SNAP recipients who don’t have dependents and are abled-bodied to be required to work 20 hours in order to keep their benefits. You may think this would stress Mary out. “I actually wish there was more awareness about our program. I want more people to join the KEYS program so that people will have to no longer worry about getting no paid sick time or fear of missing work. They are put into a situation that requires them to go back to work, but the jobs they obtain don’t offer any benefits and don’t pay enough to allow them to advance further in life.”
Even if the new rule doesn’t go into action, Mary states, “A lot of the SNAP clients we get are already CNA’s or do something in the medical field. They come to our program because they see how lucrative the industry is if they further their career beyond a certificate. And my job is to help them navigate the college system and help them manage their time with working, school, and kids. Whereas, our TANF clients need support in other areas like funding for transportation, clothing, housing, and book purchases.”
The KEY Program is an umbrella program under the Welfare Reform Bill that was passed in 1996 by President Bill Clinton. The program states that the government will provide subsidizing childcare for welfare recipients to participate in paid or unpaid work, on the job training, community service, vocational training or 6 weeks of job searching. To Mary, this isn’t the main issue with her students, “My students struggle with their kids having behavior issues at school or they get sick and they don’t have backup plans so usually, they miss out on work or school. To my students, their kids are the main priority and there isn’t enough support or understanding from employers who will allow parents to take time off to focus on their kids’ needs. My program is to not just provide them with the ability to keep their benefits, but to also give them emotional and mental support with men issues, family issues, and anything else that they have to deal with every day.”
Besides the child care being funded to the individuals who participate in the program. They also offer bus passes and money for gas. “That’s the main issue with a lot of my students, they don’t have the ability to get around. Not just to the kids’ school or daycare, then to come here to class, they also need transportation to doctor’s appointments, and school activities that their kids may participate in and we make sure we give them the money to at least cover the mileages to get to the daycares, kids’ schools and/or work and to college then back. We also provide a vehicle voucher for those who obtain employment, but the distance is too far for the bus or they work hours that the bus won’t be available. Rarely is that incentive used because people limit themselves to just this area when it comes to time to apply for jobs. I try to tell my students to reach higher than just what’s in Reading. There are opportunities outside of the city that could really boost their family income.”
Along with the vehicle voucher, the other incentives available for welfare recipients is the ability to earn KEYS CASH. For every time they submit their timesheet, pay stub, or recognition for promotion. They earn KEYS CASH that can be redeemed for the Pantry that has essentials that’s not available on SNAP such as, baby clothing, diapers, wipes, cleaning supplies, hygiene products, and more. “The government changed the guidelines to determine who qualifies for SNAP benefits which also eliminated the ability for people to get the incentives that’s available for the TANF clients. Both programs were able to get gift cards to gas stations to use on gas and gift cards to stores like Walmart and Target. The government decided that SNAP recipients shouldn’t get those gift cards to retailers. Yet, I see my students who are on SNAP struggle just as much as those on TANF.”
With the new changes trying to be implemented into the program with the new requirements formed by the Trump Administration. Mary isn’t concerned with the caseload being added, “This actually allows me to help more students. If I can get at least 1 person to change their minds about returning to school whether it’s a degree or a certification in Computer Technology. I did my job. I don’t want them to just come in and fill out their timesheets and be out the door. I want them to feel like they don’t have to settle for a job they hate and aren’t providing enough for their families. I know I have younger students who enrolled fresh out of high school and don’t even know they may qualify for the program if their parents are on Welfare.”
As I wrapped up my interview with Mary she also added, “I wish there was more funding to do more. We get about 3% of the funding from the government to assist people to further their education. I would like to see more men join our program and get into the trade courses that’s offered here at RACC. Unfortunately, we just don’t have the funding and there’s this stigma that men should go to work to provide for their families when reality. They need more than just a job to provide for their families. They need skills, a vehicle, and sometimes emotional support as men are told to not express themselves.”
Mary Turner would like for all students to come to Room B223 to see if they qualify for the program. Even if they don’t receive welfare benefits, one of the assistances will help you figure that out and if you do, they will help you through the process to get you started in the program. “We need more students to know more about the supportive services available under the SNAP and TANF program as well as the KEYS program.”