Earlier this month I accompanied a food project volunteer-turned-friend to the Social Security Administration office to see about becoming his “payee.” My friend had received a medical diagnosis years earlier that deemed him incapable of managing his own money. As a consequence, he was assigned a payee through a local state agency. A payee acts as an intermediary between the SSA office and the person receiving benefits. His payee would receive his monthly disability check of $621, pay his rent and other bills, disperse money to him each week for food, medicine, transportation, and other personal expenses, and in exchange for providing this service, charge a percentage of his monthly income.
My friend has a lot of self-awareness. From his own stories about his past, I think he knows there were plenty of good reasons he was incapable of managing his money at one point, as well as other aspects of his life. But a couple years ago, he found stable housing through a partner organization where The Nashville Food Project delivers meals each week. And that same month, he began volunteering with us on a weekly basis. From the start, he always had bus fare to get to our kitchen. He always arrived on time, and called ahead if he was running late. On the rare occasions he would be absent for his volunteer time, he notified us in advance. He remembered staff birthdays. He started calling me his boss. He treated his commitment to our work with great respect.
Anyway, my friend was having some issues with his payee. Three times this year his rent had been paid late. So, one afternoon at the office, over a few slices of stale bread and an invoice history from his housing agency showing the late payments, he humbly asked me if I would consider becoming his payee. I said of course, and asked him to do the research for how we could make the switch.
Turns out an in-person meeting with a SSA employee is required, and let’s just say a person can wait a long morning there, waiting for her number to be called. He and I waited and waited and waited. Hours later, our number was up and we approached our appointed window with the necessary paperwork and identification in hand. My friend introduced himself to a kind gentleman behind the glass and then explained our business there that morning. After I handed over my two forms of ID to become his payee, I decided to say a little bit about my friend to fill the silence – I noted his record attendance as a volunteer, his reliable nature, his communication skills, his generosity. And then the man behind the counter stopped copying the info from my license and addressed my friend directly. He asked if he was still taking his meds. My friend said he was. He asked if he feels like he is capable of managing his own money. My friend said he was. Then he typed a little more and said to him “I really believe people get better, and to me, it seems like you are really getting better.” We all talked a little more before he handed me my ID back and removed the payee requirement from my friend’s file.
He was BEAMING! He could hardly contain his joy at what felt like a huge compliment and new responsibility. He immediately began to plan a trip to the bank to open his own checking account. He thanked the SSA officer profusely and then me too on our way back to the car. I had to remind him over and over that there was nothing I had done, only testify and shine the light on what he, himself, had accomplished over the last two years with The Nashville Food Project. A couple days later we sent our contact at the SSA office a thank you card, with my friend’s childlike scrawl addressing his name on the envelope.
At The Nashville Food Project, we grow food, cook food and share it… but so much other stuff happens along the way. Not only for the poor among us, but for all of us. We have a big year planned, and rely on the support of so many to invest in our work to alleviate hunger in our city and cultivate community. I ask you sincerely to consider a financial gift to The Nashville Food Project as the year draws to a close. With love and thanks and much hope for the New Year,