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On Our Minds is the name of KERA's mental health news initiative. The station began focusing on the issue in 2013, after the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Coverage is funded in part by the Donna Wilhelm Family Fund and Cigna.

Volunteering To Pay Someone's Bills: How 'Rep Payees' Protect The Vulnerable

Courtney Collins
Kurt and Donald at their weekly meeting at the Stewpot.

Imagine trusting a stranger to make your financial decisions. For some North Texans, that’s the best possible reality.

The “representative payee program” helps mentally ill adults manage Social Security benefits. It helps people pay their bills. And when done right, it builds a bond between volunteers and vulnerable citizens.

Every Thursday, Donald Hendricks and Kurt VandeMotter have a standing appointment.

Because Hendricks is mentally ill and a recovering alcoholic and gambling addict, Social Security won’t send his monthly check unless someone helps him manage it.

That’s where VandeMotter comes in. He’s what known as a “rep payee.” He volunteers throughthe Stewpot, a Dallas non-profit devoted to helping the poor and homeless.

“It’s really important that they have somebody that they can trust. These people don’t have a lot of money,” says VandeMotter. “They get $700 a month and that’s it to live on.”

Total Financial Support

VandeMotter has access to Hendricks’ bank account and pays his rent and Direct TV bill. And together, they decided an allowance of $40 a week makes the most sense.

“If I need some extra money, I’ll sit down and I’ll talk to Kurt tell him why I need it, why I feel like I need it and he’ll put his two cents worth in and we’ll decide from there,” says Hendricks.

Hendricks is more than happy to give VandeMotter access to all his financial information.

“One of my problems and I’ve been trying to address it, is, I’m not real good with money,” he says. “And I’ve been trying to save money, and things haven’t worked out like I had hoped.”

Which is why he’s come to rely on VandeMotter. He works with two men at the Stewpot and says it’s a job he takes very seriously.

“They’ve lived a life where people have taken advantage of them on a regular basis,” VandeMotter says.

Protecting The Vulnerable

Often, a person will choose a friend or relative to manage their money, and that doesn’t always work out. Liz Merucci with the Stewpot says they see it all the time.

“For instance right now we’ve got a client who is applying for our program and she says her sister is her payee,” says Merucci. “But she says her sister’s not doing right, she’s taking her money, she’s not paying her bills.”

Stewpot volunteers on the other hand have to complete training, a background check and stick around for a year. Merucci says the folks in the program are great, but more volunteers are needed.

“People call us nearly every day or walk in every day and say I need a rep payee,” she says. “And we have to say at times, I’m sorry, we can’t take any more applications right now.”

Rep payees provide a vital service, and the bond between volunteer and client runs deep.

“It’s a great relationship, it really is. Kurt has been a great help with my finances,” Hendricks says,

And, he says, that kind of trust can’t be bought.

Courtney Collins has been working as a broadcast journalist since graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004. Before coming to KERA in 2011, Courtney worked as a reporter for NPR member station WAMU in Washington D.C. While there she covered daily news and reported for the station’s weekly news magazine, Metro Connection.