Two years ago, Erine Gray reached a turning point. After four years of creating efficiencies and cost-saving solutions as a consultant within the Texas state human services agency, he decided to pursue an idea that would attack a complicated system from the outside with a simple solution. He named this solution Aunt Bertha and put everything he had into making her a reality.
Aunt Bertha collects information on federal, state, county, city, neighborhood and charity programs and puts it all in one place online. For clients, this means they can be empowered to find available services themselves as the internet has become a ubiquitous resource anyone can readily access from the privacy of home computers and mobile phones. For social workers, Aunt Bertha is a efficient tool to help their clients find services which saves them much-needed time. For service providers, it is an accountability tool. Similar to sites like Yelp, users will eventually be able to rate and review service agencies, allowing a new standard of service to emerge and evolve.
Gray’s personal experience with the social service sector was the impetus that led him to pursue his Master’s degree in Public Affairs at the LBJ School of Public Service at the University of Texas in Austin, and eventually start Aunt Bertha. Gray and his six siblings were raised in a household where his parents struggled to make ends meet. Before they bought his childhood home in a small town outside of Buffalo, NY, his family lived in public housing. He qualified for free lunch in school and, as he explains in an early Aunt Bertha blog post, Gray experienced the embarrassment and shame so many kids feel when they’re different from their peers.
In his late teens, Gray’s mother, Donna, endured permanent mental impairments as a result of encephalitis. At 25, he moved her from western New York state to Austin to live near him and his older sister and relieve his father of being her primary caregiver. Gray then became her legal guardian and found himself in many a social service office working to get her medical and other state-offered care. He knows first-hand the amount of time and energy it takes to sit in a service provider’s office all day only to be told they didn’t qualify for care because a form was filled out incorrectly or because his mother’s condition was difficult to manage and the provider did not want to take her on. After many years of bouncing in and out of nursing care facilities and the state hospital, Donna has been happily settled in a small nursing care facility in East Austin for a little over four years. Gray visits her as often as possible and sometimes brings his dog, Rosie.
Gray’s vision of Aunt Bertha’s success looks like this:
- Government and private social service providers are using and paying for Aunt Bertha’s web-based software which will allow agencies to bypass the need for expensive and clunky, custom-built software packages, thus freeing up millions of tax dollars to continue service programs currently in danger of funding cuts.
- Funding by investors and venture capitalists is secured so that Aunt Bertha can expand beyond Texas.
- Most importantly, people in need feel empowered by using Aunt Bertha to get back on their feet, and have a voice within an online community to hold service providers accountable for both good and less than awesome practices.
To Gray, this accountability is the key to changing the system in the interest of providing better and more dignified service to those in need. He believes that online community will help de-stigmatize the idea of receiving help by allowing recipients to help each other and interact, making an inherently difficult process less isolating.
This vision is becoming closer to reality. In March, Gray launched Aunt Bertha for the entire state of Texas and was selected to be a fellow for the Unreasonable Institute. As a fellow, he will spend six weeks in Colorado this summer networking and learning best practices from other successful social entrepreneurs, and pitch Aunt Bertha to venture capitalists to secure future funding. Aunt Bertha was also recently accepted into the University of Texas Austin Technology Incubator (ATI), another path to funding and resources. Additionally, the Austin For the City network of faith-based service providers recently became one of the first to utilize Aunt Bertha software in beta mode so that Gray and his small team can work out any bugs before presenting to the larger market.
Big things are in the works for Gray and Aunt Bertha. For the social service sector, “That’s great news, sugar!”