Jennifer Onwenu, MSW, featured in Connections for Communities that Care

Jennifer Onwenu and Jack Ray Oelke
Jennifer Onwenu and Jack Ray Oelke

STEP (Services to Enhance Potential in Wayne County) received a referral from The Senior Alliance (TSA) after they had received several frantic phone calls from a woman [the couple in this story preferred to remain anonymous] in tears desperately trying to get assistance for her spouse. Her spouse had relapsed with drinking and was no longer taking his psychotropic medications. He also was opening different bank accounts to try to hide money from his wife. TSA had tried to assist the woman as best they could but did not know where to even begin with the many layers of issues.

When Ellen Mariscal, STEP behavioral clinician, first met this client she was a nervous wreck. She was contemplating leaving her husband because he was making risky financial decisions without her knowledge. She originally just wanted Senior Reach® to provide services to her husband; however he refused. Ellen encouraged her to let Senior Reach® try to provide services to her because she was in need of a lot of support and information on resources. Eventually she agreed.

Jennifer Onwenu (Michigan State University MSW) stepped in to assist the woman with transportation resources so she could get to her medical appointments since her husband was still drinking. Jennifer also provided her information on legal resources. Ellen began to provide behavioral health services to the woman to work on stress management, coping skills, and education of substance abuse disorders. Eventually, her husband agreed to meet with Ellen, Jennifer, and his wife. At this point he had hit rock bottom. He had lost his job due to his alcoholism and was finally recognizing how much his depression had worsened.

Jennifer was able to provide him information on unemployment benefits and how to enroll in Medicare benefits. Ellen began to work with both him and the spouse together in weekly couples sessions. Initially there were a lot of ups and downs. Ellen helped them to review their options (substance abuse treatment, separation, divorce. etc) and helped mediate many conflicts related to the spouse’s drinking and mental illness. Most importantly, Ellen helped them to strengthen their communication skills between each other and begin to rebuild trust.

In the end, both the woman and her husband decided to stay together. The husband eventually agreed to have his medications adjusted so his depression improved. He also agreed to enter a substance abuse treatment program and as of April, had been sober for almost a month. The woman is now happy to have support from her husband and is providing him support in his recovery in return.

Had it not been for STEP’s strong relationship with The Senior Alliance and their trust in the Senior Reach® program this couple would not have been identified. They do not have any children and had lost touch with their friends and siblings over the years. Senior Reach® provided them the support they needed to make it through this difficult time with their relationship still intact.

STEP (Services to Enhance Potential, Wayne County) Jennifer Onwenu, MSW is a care manager for STEP, a partner with the Northeast Guidance Center’s Senior Reach® program located in Detroit, MI.

Recently Jack Ray Oelke, a 73 year-old homeless man, who had been living in a tent in a park, was referred by a community partner to Jennifer after he had been asked to leave. During the assessment Jennifer found that he could not read or write and had fallen on hard times after his wife of 20 years left him and refinanced the home without his knowledge. As an elderly carpenter who had been living on a fixed income he unfortunately lost his home. Illnesses, hospitalization, and debt drove him to being homeless.

The first meeting and assessment allowed Jennifer to sign Jack up for health benefits with Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS); he had been hospitalized a week before and wanted his back medical bills paid and coverage for the future. They also began looking for potential housing. Jack’s desire was to remain in the downriver area where he had previously resided and was familiar. The following week Jack met with a coordinator at Flat Rock Towers and as a result he was able to get into an apartment. It is a fixed income apartment with utilities included so Jack will be able to afford rent. She is still working with the service coordinator to obtain clothing, dishes, and furniture and food items.

Through Jennifer’s social work expertise and the collaboration and partnership with a human service organization, in addition to the Senior Reach pledge to “make a positive impact on any senior who is referred to the program”, Jack’s health and social support needs have been met and he no longer falls into the “underserved” older adult category.

According to Jack, “My life has changed one hundred percent since I met Jennifer and she got me involved with the Senior Reach program. I would encourage any older person who has a need to get in touch with and use the Senior Reach program. They don’t look down on you; they treat you like a human being.”

This article first appeared in “Connections for Communities that Care”, a regular publication of the Michigan Association of Community Mental Health Boards. To access this and other stories of how people like Jennifer are making significant contributions to the well being of our communities visit: