JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, will be busy this week, touring a Boone Supported Living facility in his district on Tuesday. But the Senator’s behind-the-scenes look is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to seeing how the lives of Missourians living with disabilities are being improved every day in the Show-Me State.
The facilities like the one Rowden will be visiting benefit greatly from the work of the Missouri Association of Rehabilitation Facilities (MARF).
MARF’s mission as an organization is to improve the lives of Missourians living with disabilities by pushing for public policy and helping to build and strengthen organizations through advocacy, education, and collaboration. MARF represents more than 80 community provider organizations, providing care for more than 8,400 individuals with disabilities. Families rely on those organizations to provide a safe home and quality care while giving the individuals the independence they need to be a part of the community.
“MARF is made up of residential providers and employment providers,” Erika Leonard said. “They are most not-for-profit organizations throughout the state of Missouri that make sure that they are providing the proper services to people with disabilities and developmental disabilities so that they can remain as active as they can in their own communities, living in their own homes and having a competitive employment jobs and making sure they have the support they need to be as self-sufficient and independent as possible.”
Leonard is a lobbyist with John Bardgett & Associates, Inc. working at the legislative, executive, and state department levels for the past twelve consecutive years. But she also serves as the executive director of MARF.
According to MARF’s website, MARF providers serve people with disabilities through residential services, in-home support, day programs, Individual Supported Living (ISL), group homes, community access training, skills training, job development, supported employment, and sheltered employment.
MARF does this by working through two divisions: the Community Living Division and the Employment Division.
The Community Living Division works to keep people living with disabilities out of institutional settings by working to keep them involved in the community through access to group homes, semi-independent apartment programs, individualized supported living and community integration.
The Employment Division is made up of Community Rehabilitation Providers throughout the state of Missouri, offering a variety of vocational services like skills training, job development, supported employment, sheltered employment, and job maintenance support needed to go to work and improve their independence.
But there’s always a concern for MARF each year when it comes to funding. Each year, the question becomes how much funding the state will allow, and the years of budget deficits can mean little funding, sometimes even leading some of the providers to shut down. And when it comes to a service like this, the situation becomes even more difficult, as the community providers are the singular safety net for Missourians.
“We want to get to know the consumer and their families,” Leonard said. “We want to make sure they’re set up with whatever they need to have the proper services. And to do that, we have to make sure we have the proper funding.”
In an editorial, MARF President Greg Kramer said that the reimbursement rates for community provider agencies have been underfunded for decades.
“Without proper funding to maintain quality care, we are failing Missourians with developmental disabilities who regularly endure the greatest barriers to everyday life,” he wrote.
Both Leonard and Kramer point out that the funding for these services is a nonpartisan issue, and note that the state cannot provide the services at a more affordable rate.
And it truly seems to be a nonpartisan issue. Leonard says that many lawmakers agree that the services are necessary, but the issue, in the end, is always how to find the money needed to keep them going. She says that working with the legislature, the goal is to educate people about how the money is used.
“Quality care for those individuals is the top priority, and that’s hard to do when the funding for Missourians comes from the state budget and tax dollars,” Leonard said. “This is a nonpartisan issue to make sure that their constituents have the proper developmental support. And they’re always supportive and understanding.”
But the providers also know that the funding has to come from somewhere, so they instead look to fundraisers and events as a means to locate the money.
In the world that we live in, we’re not going to kick someone to the curb simply because they can’t pay,” Leonard said, noting that there are instances where the providers absorb the costs themselves.
But she says that the work is truly the reward.
“The work that these people are doing is essential to people’s lives,” she said. “It’s a positive message, a positive organization doing truly amazing work. It’s been a great fit for me, and one I hope I never have to part with because they’re just a tremendous organization to fight for.”
To learn more about MARF or to get involved, visit http://marf.cc/
Benjamin Peters was a reporter for The Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine and also produced the #MoLeg Podcast. He joined The Missouri Times in 2016 after working as a sports editor and TV news producer in mid-Missouri. Benjamin is a graduate of Missouri State University in Springfield.