UI students start nonprofit to assist classmates with disabilities


The Daily Iowan; Photos by Ben A

From left: Peter Easler, Michael Penniman, and Jacob Newcomb pose for portraits outside Burge Residence Hall on Thursday, March 22, 2018. Easler, Penniman, Newcomb are UI students starting a nonprofit to assist students with disabilities. It was inspired by, Penniman, a junior at the UI who was paralyzed in 2012 and was receiving inadequate healthcare from professional providers. The idea is to provide payment to UI students who are willing to assist disabled classmates. (Ben Allan Smith/The Daily Iowan)

After firsthand experience with unreliable and inadequate home-care providers in Iowa City, Michael Penniman, 25, and two friends decided to take control of the situation.

In 2012, while attending Kirkwood Community College, an injury rendered Penniman a quadriplegic. After several years of recovery, he returned to college as a sophomore at the University of Iowa in 2016.

While attending college, Penniman had to solicit private home-care agencies to receive the assistance throughout the day that he requires. The care he received was insufficient at best, he said.

“I started by reaching out to every home-care agency I could, over a dozen, every one in Iowa City and several in Cedar Rapids,” Penniman said. “My needs were never met, I was constantly losing employees. It was a cycle of never getting enough care or the quality of care that I needed.”

For his first semester at the UI, Penniman relied on these providers until friend Peter Easler began attending a semester later. Easler assisted Penniman when providers were absent and was eventually hired to be his primary caregiver.

Easler began getting friends involved to further assist Penniman, including Jacob Newcomb, a sophomore at the UI.

One day, Newcomb was scheduled to assist Penniman at 3 p.m. after a provider helped him get out of bed and begin his day. Newcomb received a call from Penniman at 1 p.m., saying that he was still in bed and that the provider was a no-show.

That was the last straw for the group. After discussion, the three decided they would no longer work in tandem with local providers. The three cofounded a nonprofit organization called Students Care.

The objective of Students Care is twofold. First, to provide reliable, professional care to students at the UI, using only fellow students as caregivers. Second, to facilitate friendships and awareness among students with disabilities and those without.

“We want people with disabilities to be taken care of by students, but we also want the students who come in to have experience with a disabled student,” Newcomb said. “There is a lack of awareness in our community about students with disabilities, and that’s unfortunate.”

Students Care now has more than 15 employees, assisting two clients. Not a single shift has been missed.

The group attributes this to its client-to-client structure, which allows it to tailor schedules and caregivers to fit the specific needs of the clients.

“People reach out to me all of the time; finding new helpers is easy,” Easler said. “That’s not our problem at the moment, and I don’t think we’ll ever run into that problem, given the nature of the work that’s being done.”

There are two tiers of workers at Students Care, volunteer and paid. However, most students who contact the group aren’t interested in the money. Easler said this is an end goal, as the group wants to find ways to rely less on Medicaid waiver funds and donations.

Students Care has plans to expand to other universities, the first being Iowa State, where Easler is in contact with a friend.

“We’re starting small, we want to get it perfect and professional here, then expand to Iowa State and get it perfect and professional there, then figure out how the management from here to ISU works,” Newcomb said. “Long run, if everything goes perfectly, I don’t see why this couldn’t be at multiple schools across the country. It’s a lack, and it’s a need.”


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