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Managing finances for those who can’t is a profitable niche for Kenesaw entrepreneur
One challenge for rural entrepreneurs is finding a niche market that fits a set of skills you have and ranks high enough on a value scale to provide a living. Shelly Wieland and her friend Kristy Kennedy started Guardian Angel Life Services, Inc. (GALS, Inc.) in Kenesaw, a town of 800 in south central Nebraska, because it’s a business that can be conducted almost entirely by phone and internet, requires employee skill sets available in Kenesaw, and provides a valuable service to a population that needs the care of, well, guardian angels.
In the 1970s, federal laws changed which had previously confined people in mental institutions, even if their illness or condition didn’t make them a danger to themselves or others. As a result of this and other changes in the nation’s social landscape, today millions of Americans have mental capacity, illness or other issues that significantly impact their ability to deal with certain aspects of day-to-day life – particularly the financial aspects.
From her experience working for Health and Human Services, Shelly was aware of the need for financial management services — guardianship, representative payee, conservatorship, and power of attorney — for people who lacked even the most basic skills of handling money. By having a third party handle the finances, the government and their loved ones are assured the rent, food, medical and other necessities will be paid.
“I knew the services were needed in Nebraska, and we could supply them,” Wieland said. “I contacted the Social Security Administration and Health and Human Services Administration to see if these agencies would refer their clients if we started an agency in rural Nebraska.”
A leap of faith
Shelly and her business partner invested what it took to start the business. She said, “We acquired our 501(c)(3) status and applied for a federal ID number. We were hopeful and doubtful at the same time. We questioned if the business could sustain itself, and who and how many clients we would serve.”
The business started in September of 2002 with two employees and nine clients, and today the business has grown to nine employees serving 556 clients. Shelly said, “We responded to a need, and the need continues to grow. We do no advertising. Our client base increases because service providers have learned that we provide a high quality service at a reasonable cost.”
Most of the clients live in Nebraska although Guardian Angel Life Services, Inc. also serves people in other states. Referrals come from Social Security, the Veterans Administration, the courts, attorneys, and Health and Human Services. They also contract directly with individuals who are experiencing problems managing their finances.
More than just paying the bills
In addition to helping insure basic needs are met, the service helps families with major life decisions involving their relative’s finances, such as moves into a nursing home. Landlords appreciate working with the agency because their rent is assured.
Shelly says, “When you get services through our agency, your money is placed in a collective account owned by Guardian Angel. Money in the account cannot be garnished, and this gives us the opportunity to work with credit collectors to reduce interest payments and help clients get out of debt. We are a neutral party. We look at the facts, and we protect the best interests of the individual.”
Guardianship entails liability. A guardian is legally responsible for another person. Shelly said, “We don’t accept people as clients unless we can meet their needs.”
The agency helps their clients save money, learn skills to manage their own finances, and potentially become self-sufficient. People may always apply to regain control of their finances.
Where Angels come from
When hiring new employees, Shelly said, “I usually select someone I have known because it is important that they fit into our group, and life experience is more useful than degrees although most of us have college education in our resumes.” Other criteria pertains to a background in human service, such as working with homeless people, experience with the elderly in a nursing home, or as the mother of developmentally disabled child. The employees need to know how to manage their own stress and communicate with clients who are under stress. Nearly all of their communication is over the phone or e-mail, and Guardian Angel employees need to have good verbal and written communications skills.
Guardian Angels provides a friendly work place for single moms and young mothers. The employees work flex times, and the office has space set aside for a sick child to come to work with mom if need be. Guardian Angels communicate with their clients via face-to-face contact, phone, mailings and the internet. Shelly said, “The best investment we made for our business is our software, RPM (Representative Payee Manager). Our software is specifically designed for our kind of business, and even though the initial investment was large, we could not do our work without the software and the computers.”
The business is still based in Kenesaw because Shelly and her current board members live in Kenesaw, and there’s no need for it to be elsewhere. The first four years, they worked out of Shelly’s home, and the last four years they rented a small office space on Main Street. Last summer they moved to a larger office space. Shelly says, “Over the last four years, the business has grown by 100 clients per year. If we continue to grow, we will need additional staff. For every 75 clients, we hire another staff person. If it continues this way, in several years we will need to build a building because we will outgrow the building we are in now.”
Shelly and the staff find the work rewarding. Shelly says, “Why I do this? God needs me to be here, I have a definite skill in managing finances, and I like to help people. “
Opportunity exists in rural Nebraska for entrepreneurs with a vision and the drive to make it happen. Guardian Angles Life Services is just one more example.
Who To Contact...
Guardian Angel Life Services, Inc.
PO Box 260
Kenesaw, NE 68956