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Banking on KC – Julie Edlund of Life Unlimited

Banking on KC – Julie Edlund of Life Unlimited

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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is Julie Edlund, the CEO of Life Unlimited. Welcome, Julie.

Julie Edlund:

Thank you Kelly for having me today.

Kelly Scanlon:

Hey, I hear there is a big congratulations in order. You've just learned that Life Unlimited is a finalist for best local charity and best place to work in The Pitch's Best of KC right?

Julie Edlund:

Yeah, we did. We just found out the other day that we were nominated and we're really excited.

Kelly Scanlon:

Let's talk about Life Unlimited. It's carrying on the important work of actually three organizations that until a few years ago were operating independently. Collectively though they had about 120 years of experience working with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Tell us about the mission of Life Unlimited and why the three organizations that were working separately decided to merge into this one.

Julie Edlund:

About five years ago, Immacolata Manor and Concerned Care merged together. Then, a year and a half ago, Open Options joined our organization. We changed our name to Life Unlimited so that we could become just one organization. We knew that working together, we would be better able to meet our goals. So all three of the organizations provided support services for people with developmental disabilities across Kansas City.

Kelly Scanlon:

Tell us a little bit about the name Life Unlimited. What does that imply?

Julie Edlund:

So when we got together and were thinking about a name, we wanted something that really kind of spoke to what we do and our mission is to support people with developmental disabilities as they experience life with unlimited possibilities. What we know is that often people who have intellectual and developmental disabilities may struggle in an area of their life, but if they have support with their skills that they need help with, that they can really live a very independent, happy, healthy, and fulfilling life.

Kelly Scanlon:

Talk to us about some of the specific services and resources that Life Unlimited offers, particularly talk about your community living program.

Julie Edlund:

So our community living program is our largest service, and that is a residential program where we provide support for individuals, support them [inaudible 00:02:19] in their own home, or they live in one of the homes that we either rent on their behalf, or we have built for them specifically. In those homes, they have support staff. Staff may work with somebody four hours a week. They may work with them 24 hours a day. It depends on the individual's needs. We have some people that need help, maybe four or five hours a week with money management and meal shopping. And that's it. Then we have others that need 24/7 support because they have complicated medical conditions or behavioral challenges that require staff with them at all times.

Kelly Scanlon:

What you just described were often called group homes, but Life Unlimited and your predecessors were very instrumental in getting the language shift to the individualized supported living becoming the preferred way of saying that, but the words matter. So talk to us about that.

Julie Edlund:

So years ago, individuals that, I would say 40 to 50 years ago, when I was a young individual, was born with a developmental disability, the doctors often encouraged families to have them put in an institution saying that they would cause more problems for their family and the family would not be able to meet their health needs. So it was a trend to send people to institutions. Families that could often raised individuals on their own, supported them in their homes any way they could but there just wasn't a lot of support services for them. So people were placed in institutions and the average life expectancy was pretty low. Then about 40 to 50 years ago, group homes started popping up around places. Actually, Immacolata Manor, Concerned Care, and Open Options were three agencies that were on the forefront of moving people out of institutions and into group homes.

Julie Edlund:

A group home could have anywhere from eight to 15 individuals in it. They were supported that way. Then in the 90s directly involved due to our parents and our families that were advocating saying individuals with disabilities deserve all the same opportunities that all of us have. They deserve to live at homes like we would live in. They deserve to have the support. They deserve to be in their communities, to have employment, competitive employment, just let the rest of us do.

Julie Edlund:

So through that advocacy, we went from group homes to individual supported living. We have homes all throughout the Kansas City area. We have 70 homes right now. Some are two-bedroom apartments, some are three-bedroom apartments or homes, and then some are four bedrooms. So an individual can pick and choose one of the homes or they may want to go out in the community and find a home that they want to rent on their own and we help support that too. So they find a home and they also choose the roommates with whom they want to live. Then we work together with their family and service support team to decide on what supports they need. So instead of putting everybody in one place and kind of grouping in a group home and doing things together, the individualized plan is everybody's allowed to live in the community with their own wishes, dreams, hopes, and working on a plan that works best for them.

Kelly Scanlon:

Another program that you have is day services. What does that involve?

Julie Edlund:

So we have a day service program that's from 9:30 to 3:30, and those are for individuals that often have retired from employment and have a developmental disability, or maybe they have a high level of medical care or are not going to work out in the community and want to go do something fun and productive during the day. So they come to our day services and then they go out and volunteer in the community. They learn skills and go out and do community outings that are a lot of fun. So it's an activity center that helps really guide people's skill-building and ability to volunteer and be a part of their community during the day.

Julie Edlund:

We also have a program that we started called [inaudible 00:06:09]. So those are for individuals that don't come to a typical center, but they may be picked up in a home or they may come to a location and go to different places throughout the day and then go straight home instead of coming to a center. So for instance, maybe three people want to volunteer for meals on wheels on Monday and Wednesday. So we would have a staff person would help facilitate that and guide that and support the individuals so that they can make that happen.

Kelly Scanlon:

Sounds like a great recreation program. You also have an employment program. Tell us about that.

Julie Edlund:

We do. We have an employment program that provides support services for people who need job training, interview skill development, and placement. So when an individual enters our employment program, they'll get all the supports they need. Even after they secure a job, we'll often go and help them learn the skills that they need and work with the employer so that that job can be successful. Missouri is an employment first state, which means that we're always advocating for and helping in any way we can to make sure that our individuals with disabilities have competitive employment and the same opportunities that any of us do for a fulfilling job.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yes, and when people can have meaningful work, that just makes such a big difference in their lives and in providing confidence and providing the dignity that really comes for anybody to have a job and to be able to work. So a very, very important service that you offer there.

Julie Edlund:

Absolutely. A lot of the people that go through our employment programs really enjoy their work and are very dedicated and loyal employees. They make great employees. So if you're a company out there looking for some great employees, you can also connect with our employment program.

Kelly Scanlon:

You also have a very robust recreation program, and one of them, that I know is one of your favorites, is the Bowl-A-Thon and you've got something special coming up with that. Tell us about it.

Julie Edlund:

Yeah, so we have a recreation program that's been going for about 35 years, supported by the Clay County Developmental Disabilities Resource Board. We do about 80 activities. Some of those now are Zoom, but typically we do bowling, we do social events, we do advocacy events and activities. We have cooking classes and different things, and those are available for any individual that lives in Clay County that wants to sign up. Through that program, we do a Bowl-A-Thon every year and that will be next month. We're hoping to do that in person. We're pretty excited about it. If not, we will have a virtual opportunity like we did last year. September 11th through the 14th, we have various programs for the Bowl-A-Thon. There are different events, your corporation, your individual supporters can sign up at different times to come and bowl with a team or as an individual participant during that time. You check out our website to find out more specific information about the event.

Kelly Scanlon:

And that website is lifeunlimitedinc.org. The work that you do, it's very intensive, but it's also very rewarding. Tell us about the impact of your work.

Julie Edlund:

When I first started, about seven years ago, we had a young lady, Tanya, who just moved into services with us, and she had entered services after having survived a couple near-fatal diabetic attacks. She spent a significant amount of time in a hospital after being in diabetic coma. Due to her developmental disability, she often struggled keeping up with her medications, eating a healthy diet and achieving her life goals. She moved into one of our independent supported living homes. She moved in with two other ladies and staff helped her with her medications, meals, transportation, goal planning, medical appointments. Within 10 months she lost over 100 pounds, was taken off all of her diabetic medication, had a job, and was reconnected with her daughter who she'd not seen in years.

Kelly Scanlon:

How incredible.

Julie Edlund:

That's one of the stories that just kind of shows that often people living with a disability struggle in a specific area of life trying to do it on their own, but once they have support that they need, they flourish in all areas of their lives.

Kelly Scanlon:

Tell us about how you got involved Julie.

Julie Edlund:

I started as a volunteer in college. I volunteered at a day program for people with disabilities and just got hooked. In this field, people who enter it, if it's in your heart, you just kind of fall in love, and we have many employees, many people that have been here for many, many years. So I started in college at a day program as a direct support professional providing care for people who had cerebral palsy. I was there for six years, graduated from college and worked in various nonprofits but the majority of my career has been spent in the field of disabilities.

Kelly Scanlon:

Speaking of attracting workers. Right now, we all know we're in the midst of incredible competition for workers. It's just so intense. So how has Life Unlimited continued to attract qualified employees during this period?

Julie Edlund:

So the most important thing and it's key to the success of our programs are our employees. Those are our direct support professionals, persons that actually follow up and provide the support individuals. Direct support professionals are reimbursed based on our rates are paid through Medicaid, and those have been substantially low rates throughout the state of Missouri. For instance, a year ago, the average pay was about $10.50. We have recently, starting this July, we see some new funding through the legislative process and through the CARES Act to raise the pay rates to, I think the average is $12 across the state. We're at $14 now starting, $14 to $19, depending on the position and working hard to raise money and look for other avenues to increase that pay. The job is incredibly hard and challenging, and then to make 14 bucks an hour, it's pretty hard to find staff out there. Employees that are working for us aren't doing it for the money, they're doing it because they care so deeply about the people they support. I think it's not fair for us as a community to not pay people that provide such an important service, a livable wage. There are over 15,000 direct support professionals in Missouri, and those are individuals that are not living the livable wage. So we are advocating strongly across the state for our legislators and others to continue to help us raise those rates so that we can pay them more.

Kelly Scanlon:

I think one of the things that the pandemic has taught us is just how critical some of the people, workers are that a lot of people didn't even think about before, and didn't think about the conditions they worked in, and didn't think about how they were paid.

Julie Edlund:

Yeah we realize, we're very dependent on our server workers and those are the people that continue to work throughout the pandemic, that had to show up every day, had to work long hours and are still doing that to support our communities and the things that we do and we want. In that is the direct support professionals and care providers. Those are the individuals that not only take care of people with disabilities, they also take care of our aging. So we will all need direct support professionals at some point in our lives with family members, for ourselves. So it's very important that we look at and consider what direct support professionals do and how that will impact our lives and those that we love and make sure that we're taking care of those individuals.

Kelly Scanlon:

You're also in the midst of another exciting project right now. You're renovating your North Kansas City building. What's that renovation going to allow you to do when it's completed? I believe January 2022.

Julie Edlund:

Yes. We're pretty excited about the North Kansas City office. So Concerned Care had an office on Armour Road, right next door to the Armour movie theater and across the street from Chappell's. It's an old bank building. We've had an office there for over 20 years and we are renovating it. It's been gutted and they're putting up walls now. Our recreational program will operate out of there, and we'll even have a rooftop to be able to have social activities, recreational activities, and just some fun times.

Kelly Scanlon:

Share some of the ways our listeners can get involved with Life Unlimited.

Julie Edlund:

We often have volunteers that come out and do special events and help with activities in our homes, but right now, due to COVID, we've put those on hold. We do have special events and different ways that you can participate or support our organization, and you can find those on our website.

Kelly Scanlon:

You have a full staff. I think you have more than 300 full and part-time employees total, and you're looking for more. So volunteers are also very critical to the work that you do. So again, your website, lifeunlimitedinc.org. People can go out there. You can find the different volunteer opportunities and just the various ways that you can support and advocate for the work that Life Unlimited does. Julie, thank you so much to you, to your staff, for all the important work that you do here in Kansas City. We really appreciate that, and the way that you're working to improve so many lives.

Julie Edlund:

Thank you for having us Kelly.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, president of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Julie Edlund for being our guest on this episode of Banking on KC. Everyone has a talent to share. Life Unlimited's programs offer enriching activities that help individuals with disabilities tap into their talents and pursue options for leading meaningful lives filled with unlimited possibilities. Every day, each of us is given the opportunity to make a difference in one another's lives. We encourage you to act on those opportunities, no matter how small they may seem. Your actions will make a positive difference. Kansas City will be a stronger community and many individual lives will be improved. Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City. Country Club Bank, member FDIC.