IOWA CITY, Iowa — In his first year at the University of Iowa, Michael Penniman woke up each day not sure whether he would be able to make it to class or even get out of bed.
Penniman, a junior at UI who has been quadriplegic since 2012, requires regular assistance throughout the day. Finally finding a home health company had made going back to school seem more feasible. But each time he tried out a new provider, things started slipping through the cracks.
With some companies, he said, he found himself constantly training new replacements. With others, he said caregivers simply didn’t show up.
He said he missed classes. His grades dropped, and his health deteriorated.
But, going through the experience inspired Penniman and some friends to establish a nonprofit that might prevent other UI students from going through a similar experience, the Iowa City Press-Citizen reported .
After taking a break from community college to recover, Penniman, 25, started at the University of Iowa as a sophomore in fall 2016. When care providers missed shifts, Penniman began reaching out to Peter Easler, a family friend and fellow undergraduate student, to help out as needed. At one point, this meant stepping in when a home care company suddenly informed Penniman that they would not be able to provide the 50 remaining hours of care he had booked that month.
“A caregiver broke her foot and they said they didn’t have anyone to replace her,” Penniman said. “For four mornings a week, these guys, they came here, got me out of bed. That was my only option — or it was go home to Des Moines.”
Somewhere between incidents like this and introducing Penniman to his own friends, Easler got the idea for a business run by students for students.
With the help of Jacob Newcomb, a fellow member of Easler’s fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi, Easler got together a team of four students — also mostly from Easler’s fraternity — to test what that nonprofit would look like, beginning with Penniman.
Called Students Care, the idea is to use Medicaid waiver funds — which they hope to one day supplement with grant funding and other fundraisers — to pay students who perform home care in a more reliable and more personable way.
The startup is very much in the early stages. It is a registered nonprofit, with 12 employees, which they pay from $8.50 to $11 per hour. Other than Penniman, who himself is involved in the startup’s operation, they have one other client, a student at Kirkwood Community College.
Easler said clients sign liability waivers, and Penniman trains the employees on how to meet the clients’ needs. He said he stays with new employees for their first few shifts to make sure everything runs smoothly.
The concept works, Easler said, because there are students in the area who want consistent home care that allows them to have a more traditional college experience and there many reliable students who want to make money by helping out.
But there are kinks to work out — chiefly, funding. At least as was the case with Penniman, their services are funded at less than half of the rate as that of home care companies in the area. Even cutting out the overhead, the amount these companies take out doesn’t leave as much for Students Care workers as Penniman would like for employees.
For now, Easler said he’s focused on keeping a high quality of care as it grows.
“That was the biggest thing for me for a while. Every day, I would ask, ‘How is this year compared to last year?'” Easler said. “Because I don’t want to build something up if it’s not exceeding expectations.”
The nonprofit has a lot going for it, too, Newcomb said, including the sheer proximity of student employees to their student clients. He cites a time when a student who was supposed to help Penniman was rushed to the hospital just before his shift. Unlike the time a foot injury left Penniman suddenly without a month’s worth of home service, Newcomb said he himself was able to fill in.
“There is always someone close by who can get here in a reasonable time — like the day he knocked his water off the table,” said Newcomb, who points out that Students Care have not missed a shift. “I was at Tippie (College of Business), and I was able to get (to his dorm) in two minutes and put a towel down — otherwise he’d be sloshing around in it all day.”
More than availability, though, the student interaction is the point of the nonprofit, Newcomb said. He wants the nonprofit to help connect students with activities and clubs to get involved in.
“For college kids who aren’t disabled, it’s super easy to get involved in things,” Newcomb said. “We don’t want there to be any barriers for students with disabilities to go to a four-year university where they can enjoy it the whole time they are here.”
Penniman has become the group’s poster child for this. He grew up wanting to follow in the footsteps of his dad who was in the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. Like college in general, this was put on the back burner when an impromptu wrestling match with a friend left him quadriplegic in 2012.
Penniman, who said he flat-lined seven times after the incident, had no movement for a year after the injury and had to learn to talk again. As abilities came back to him, he went back to school, starting with just one class at a time in Des Moines Area Community College.
Two years ago he picked up courses again at UI, navigating life as a paraplegic and full-time student with a patience he said he learned from his time as a rock climber.
“Figure it out” became a kind of life motto for Penniman, but making regular meetings and events did not seem feasible.
“Becoming a Phi Kappa Psi was just a thought — kind of just a dream,” he said. “I wanted to be in the fraternity, but with home care as it was, I wasn’t even able to go to school consecutively, let alone be able to go out into the community.”
This year, though, he was accepted into the fraternity, a feat he attributes to the stability he’s gotten from their new startup.
“I’m not stuck in bed wondering am I going to have to go to the hospital, because my catheter bag is full, or am I going to wake up and have a bed sore because I’ve been in bed for so long,” he said.
Closing out his second year at UI, his hope now is that those who come after him have similar experiences.
“Something we are looking at is not only current students who are disabled, but prospective students who are sitting at home, like me, who would like to go to school, but don’t know if it’s possible or how they can do it,” Penniman said. “We want them to know that we have this platform now of students showing support.”
Information from: Iowa City Press-Citizen, http://www.press-citizen.com/
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Iowa City Press-Citizen.