Bollinger County woman, son falling through the cracks

Friday, October 26, 2007
June Werchow jotted a note to herself Monday while seated in the camper trailer she lives in near Marble Hill, Mo. (Kit Doyle)

MARBLE HILL, Mo. -- June Werchow fell through the cracks and landed hard.

What happened to June and her son, Freddie, is happening more and more to people who are living just a paycheck away from hard times. In a recent interview, June, 63, said she lost her job and in so doing, lost her health insurance. Freddie, 38, said he has a bad back from an injury and can no longer work.

June has had two breast cancer surgeries, the first a lumpectomy and the second one to remove the entire breast. She is overweight and diabetic. A former medical transcriptionist and school bus driver, she is willing to work but realistic enough to know that at her age and with her weight problem, her chances of being hired are slim.

June and Freddie were making ends meet with their meager incomes -- hers from a widow's pension from her late husband's military benefits. Both were receiving Social Security disability. She owns the property in Bollinger County she and Freddie live on, but no one knew how primitive the conditions were until she developed an MRSA infection -- methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a staph infection that can be fatal.

June went to Immediate HealthCare in Cape Girardeau in July for treatment of the infection. Family nurse practitioner Nina Hill said she explained to June how to tend to the MRSA, which was draining from her head onto her face, and encouraged her to keep it meticulously clean. With some prodding, Nina found out why June said that wouldn't be possible. June was reluctant to admit it, but eventually she told Nina that she was living in a camper with no septic system. Freddie lives next door in an old motor home. Their former home, a 1960s vintage mobile home, is no longer habitable. Her running water is a garden hose hooked up to a cistern on her property.

Fred Werchow checked the dog food Monday at his property near Marble Hill, Mo. Werchow lives in the trailer on the left, and his mother, June Werchow, lives in the trailer to the right. (KIT DOYLE~

Nina called Pat Hicks, who runs Immediate HealthCare with her husband, Dr. Robb Hicks, and told her, "We've got to get some help for this woman. We have to do something."

Sometimes invisible

It's difficult to know how many more people are living under similar circumstances, say those who work with helping agencies, because they aren't always visible and sometimes don't want to be found. Sometimes it's a matter of people who once were independent but are too proud to ask for help. Sometimes it's because they don't know help is available to them. Sometimes they ask and the experience is so humiliating they prefer to make do as best they can.

Maj. Ben Stillwell, director of the Salvation Army, said he has noticed that the Salvation Army is feeding more people than ever before.

"We are getting more and more requests from more and more new people," Stillwell said.

There are always people who will try to abuse the charitable system, he said, but his agency is seeing an increasing number of people who are really in need, people who have lost their jobs or have low-skilled jobs that don't pay enough.

"There are probably more than we will ever know about," said caseworker Tina Rodgers. "I've seen families too proud to ask for help with children sleeping in the car. Sometimes there are people who come up here and get help, but they don't tell you the whole circumstances. You just know there are other things going on."

Hanging onto one item

Rodgers said she often sees people who have property they could sell to help their financial situation, but they want to hang on to that one thing that belongs to them and refuse to sell it. Their sense of who they are is tied up in that property ownership, she said.

People who have always provided for their families find that their pride makes it difficult to ask for help when they need it, and when they do, at times the agencies established to help them don't make it easy.

When people need assistance, said United Way director Nancy Jernigan, there are agencies they can go to, such as First Call For Help, but each agency often requires them to fill out forms and rehash for each one of them what led them to the situation they're in -- each time reminding them how their lives have changed for the worse.

"I remember the first time I asked for help," said Rodgers, the caseworker, about the Salvation Army. "I said I would never do that again. I have been on that side of the table."

Rodgers said she tries to comfort applicants and tells them that she was once in their situation and that they, too, can triumph over it.

June and Freddie have asked for help, starting with the usual state and federal agencies. She makes too much money from her pension and Social Security to qualify for Medicaid, she said. Banks won't lend her any money to improve her housing situation because she doesn't have enough income, and the value of her land would not provide sufficient collateral. She and Freddie have found themselves caught in the cycle of payday loans to make ends meet, something Pat and Nina hope to get them out of. June and Freddie qualified for federal housing benefits, but would have to spend down what little assets they have -- that is, use up her own cash and property before the federal assistance goes into effect -- and sacrifice about half of their income to pay the rent. Her income goes for basic needs and medical expenses. She needs to have rotator cuff surgery, but because of the MRSA infection and the lack of insurance and money, that will have to wait.

"It's frustrating," Jernigan said. "The United Way has been here 53 years, and the war on poverty is being waged for many years, and I don't think we've made much of a dent."

Jernigan said she finds it frustrating that a single mother who qualifies for government-subsidized child care gets a raise in her minimum-wage job, and then finds out that the raise disqualifies her for the child care; day-care costs leave her with less money than the minimum-wage pay provided.

It's also frustrating, she said, that people like June have to spend down their assets in order to qualify for subsidized housing, leaving them with less money than before qualifying for other living expenses.

Besides, June owns the land she lives on, and it's home, even though she's so far removed from towns that people come out and dump their trash and unwanted animals on her property. It's home. It's hers. She'd like to put a good used mobile home on it and have water and septic hookups to it.

Reaching out to the community wasn't successful for her either. Immediate HealthCare lets June and Freddie shower, and some nearby friends let them bathe and wash their laundry in their home several times a week. But a church asked them not to come to services because of their hygiene issues. A local health-care provider turned them away for the same reason.

"I have been thinking more and more it's time for the churches to take the lead in reaching out to others," Jernigan said.

June and Freddie found out that some churches will help them, but that help is contingent on their attending that church.

A new coalition

A coalition of churches in Southeast Missouri, formed with help from the United Way as Love INC (In the Name of Christ), will be able to reach out to people in need, not always with money but more with time, skills and a relationship with the people they're helping. The organization isn't quite off the ground yet, said director Eva Hillis, but the momentum is building. Building person-to-person relationships, Jernigan said, is as important as anything else.

"That's a simple thing," she said. "It doesn't take a lot of money or a fundraising campaign. Isn't love one another the No. 1 commandment? We need more people who feel that way, to make it a point to reach out and touch somebody. We still have to figure out a way to hook people up with one another. We all have so much to share. Nothing feels as good as helping someone."

June and Freddie found friends in Nina and Pat. Through Immediate HealthCare they enlisted the help of the Community Caring Council, US Bank, Withers Broadcasting, the Rose Bed Inn and other businesses in the area and are having a benefit for them Saturday afternoon at Immediate HealthCare. June plans to be at the benefit. They hope to raise enough money to "bring humanity and dignity to a wonderful woman," Pat Hicks said.

"She just touched my heart," Nina said. "There's no reason for anyone to be living in those conditions."

Pat and Nina enjoy June's easygoing demeanor and her humor. Despite her own situation, Nina points out, June recognizes that there are people worse off than she is.

"We know from personal experience that you can judge people on first glance and you are always wrong," Nina said. "Somebody needs to be looking out, lending a helping hand. That's what God wants."

335-6611, extension 160

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