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When he was 16, Erine Gray’s mother caught the rare brain disease encephalitis, causing permanent damage and memory loss.
Gray moved his mother to Austin, Texas, a few years later to help care for her. He was just out of college with an economics degree, doing contract work. She was 57 years old at the time with early-onset dementia, and no income.
He struggled helping her with daily tasks and making sure she took her medications. Gray had to find a sitter for her when he left the house.
Eventually she required 24-hour care.
“Nobody has a road map for these types of situations, I learned that very early on,” Gray said in an interview with Salud America! “We didn’t know what services were available to help.”
That’s why, now 28 years after his mother’s diagnosis, Gray is especially proud of creating AuntBertha.com—the nation’s only digital platform that makes it free and easy for anyone to search any U.S. ZIP code and find and apply for all kinds of social services, such as food assistance, housing, jobs, and medical care.
FindHelp.org is a version of AuntBertha.com that pulls together social services specifically helping in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The problem we’re trying to solve is the information gap,” Gray said. “The nonprofits are doing the heavy lifting, offering help and getting people enrolled. We’re making sure people can find them.”
A ‘Broken’ System of Navigating Social Services
Gray’s own experience navigating health and social services for his mother was eye-opening.
“[It] made me see how broken the system really is,” he said.
Latinos are among the groups that suffer a big lack of access to social support for economic, healthcare, and education. This makes it harder for Latino kids to achieve academically, socially, and physically, according to a Salud America! research review.
“You can find anything on Amazon. But when you’re trying to find a social services program, it’s real fragmented,” Gray said. “People in need weren’t finding services. They didn’t know what was available.”
Gray thought it should be easier for people to get help.
So he went back to school and got a degree in public policy at UT Austin.
He began working as a contractor for the state of Texas. From 2006 to 2010, his group was tasked with figuring out a better way to connect Texans to social services, like food stamps and welfare, and help them apply.
“Previously, applicants had to visit offices in person, often waiting for hours before finding out whether they qualified for help. As the 2009 recession hit and the number of people needing aid grew, Gray’s team built call centers and an online application to streamline the process,” according to an article in Alcalde.
Gray’s team redesigned the state’s portal to make it more self-service. It gave people answers about social services in 30 seconds, rather than 30 minutes by phone or longer in person.
“Not that long ago, a single mom would have to take a day off work to sit in an office before she could even apply,” he told Alcalde. “Now there’s more dignity.”
This work also gave him the idea for AuntBertha.com.
“I thought to myself, ‘Well, if we can visualize data for complex programs like the food stamps program, would more self-service options in social services be cheaper to implement and less frustrating for the person in need?'” Gray said in a previous interview. “And that was the a-ha moment—the big idea.”
The Start of AuntBertha.com: The First Online Social Services Database
No one had ever tried to take on the herculean task of “digitizing all of the health and human services resources across the United States.”
So, in 2010, Gray started at square one.
He downloaded a business plan off the Internet and filled it out.
He chose the name Aunt Bertha.
“Originally it was a play on Uncle Sam—Aunt Bertha picks up where Uncle Sam leaves off. We’ve all had tough times, and need a helping hand every now and then. Almost all of us will at some point in our lives,” Gray said in a previous interview. “Everybody has a family member that is a little eccentric, who’s the loudest person in the room. They have good advice … I was sort of playing on that. It kind of stuck. But people remember it, and that’s great for our mission.”
Using his own past programming experience, he built the first version of AuntBertha.com. The platform focused solely on gathering data about social services in Austin.
The Austin American-Statesman newspaper featured the website in 2011.
“We didn’t have many users at the time, but we were known for having a good user experience and respecting the dignity of self service,” Gray said. “A lot of people in need may not feel comfortable sharing with their co-worker. They’re embarrassed, or it’s based on a traumatic occurrence in their life. This really gives people freedom to know that it really is private.”
Gray also started raise money for the platform.
But he said he was “bad at it” at first.
So he started researching other ways to fund the AuntBertha.com. They ended up not seeking to become a nonprofit. Rather, they are a Certified B Corporation. That means they have to “meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.”
They adapt the platform for different customers—leading health systems, health plans, school systems, government agencies, social workers, and nonprofits—who use it for referrals.
As of today, they have raised over $22 million in funding.
“Most of our investors are impact investors. They’re more interested in having an impact on the things you’re trying to accomplish for the betterment of the world,” Gray said.
How Does the Platform Work?
Here’s how it works.
The platform, in seconds, sifts through all national, state, county, city, and other social service programs and finds those that cover your neighborhood.
For example, a search of the 78207 ZIP code in San Antonio, one of the city’s highest poverty areas where 93% of the population is Latino, returns 2,180 programs. You can also search programs by other filters, such as age, hours of operation, income eligibility, and more.
People can then contact programs and apply for services.
“It’s meant to be an entry point for finding out what’s available and finding out the enrollment process,” Gray said.
How Do They Get Data on All of These Social Service Programs?
Since the start, Gray said the platform is curated by a data operations team who researches social service programs every day.
“Broken up by region in some cases, it’s their job to figure out which programs are changing and what new programs are there,” he said.
Today they have a national network of over 350,000 social service program locations.
Platform users also suggest changes or find new programs.
“That goes into a queue and our team reviews it and verifies it,” Gray said. “We don’t always get it right, but we try to keep up with the changes. And it’s never completed because it’s always a moving target.”
How Many People Use the Platform?
The platform continues to grow.
In 2012, AuntBertha.com expanded from Austin to cover social services across Texas. Then it came to Richmond, Va., in 2013, and eventually nationwide.
Today the platform has helped 3.6 million people in all 50 states.
“Most are seekers; people in need, or family members searching on their behalf. Usually they just try to get through their situation, come once or twice,” Gray said. “Several hundred-thousand others are social workers or care coordinators, who help people for a living.”
They also continue to adapt the platform for use by large organizations—like 2-1-1, AARP, and the American Red Cross—who refer their clients to use Aunt Bertha to apply for services.
“Our customers are connecting the people they serve to food, housing, education and other programs using our nationwide Social Care Network,” Gray said in a statement. “When people’s basic needs are met, they are less likely to consume unnecessary healthcare services, which improves healthcare organizations’ bottom lines and ultimately overall health outcomes.”
Ensuring Equity in the Use of FindHelp.org amid Coronavirus
Since the pandemic, Gray estimates FindHelp.org usage has tripled over the past quarter.
“It feels like this [platform] has been 10 years in the making. We’re lucky to be in a position to help in a time like this,” Gray said. “Sometimes just knowing about a service, that it exist, eases anxiety. Then they can also take advantage of that service.”
The platform also includes a translate widget on every page.
“That can translate the page into any language Google Translate supports,” Gray said. “It’s used periodically.”
The Future of FindHelp.org and Auntbertha.com
Gray’s team is able to store and review platform search data by ZIP code. This gives the team some unique insight into what kinds of services are needed in different places.
For example, housing is a fairly consistent need across all regions, he said.
“One of the top three searches in Texas is for dental care, which really surprised me. It’s not as high in other places,” Gray said. “I learned that dental care is not covered for adults in Medicaid. They can’t afford it out of pocket.”
They hope to help leaders make informed policy decisions, too.
“We make search data available to policymakers, researchers, universities and so on, so that they can better understand where the hurt is in their community. Imagine a world where you can see, in real time, that your neighbors don’t have enough money for tampons. This is a real search: every single search is somebody’s life. It’s somebody’s crisis moment,” Gray said.
“For me, what I’d love to figure out a little more is how do we make [our platform] more ubiquitous so it’s easy to find,” he said. “If we have more users, they’re more likely to find services, and therefore we have a broader impact.”
Editor’s Note: Main image is Erine Gray with his mother (courtesy Erine Gray).
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This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.