Jenny Weast has taught math at Oakmont High School for 30 years and coached its cheerleaders to six national championships, but she soon may be unable to afford to get out of bed.
Weast, a quadriplegic since a skiing accident at age 16, lost the Medi-Cal funding this month that has long paid caregivers to get her out of bed, then bathe, feed and dress her each morning.
The popular teacher at the Roseville school is no longer eligible for these services because she makes too much money, according a notice of Medi-Cal termination sent by Sacramento County on June 21.
Her dilemma is rare: She has become so successful in her profession that she earns a six-figure salary, but that disqualifies her from the aid that makes it physically and financially possible to work.
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Weast, 56, said most people in her situation would have given up work years ago to ensure they could remain poor enough to receive public aid.
“The way the laws are, the majority of the disabled don’t go to work for fear of losing their benefits or they stop midway because they will lose their benefits, or they work part-time,” she said. “My goal has always been to be independent and to pay my own bills and to have my own health care. I pay those all myself.”
On a recent morning, Weast worried over her future and talked about her love of teaching and adventure while caregiver Melinda Armstrong cleaned the kitchen of her small, tidy Citrus Heights home.
“It is not a luxury,” Weast said. “I cannot survive without the caregivers. I cannot get out of bed. I can’t take a shower, all the basic things that people take for granted.”
Weast moved into the house, retrofitted by friends from Oakmont, 12 years ago. A sign in the brightly decorated living room says, “Grateful. Thankful. Blessed.”
Armstrong and three other part-time caretakers rotate through the home nine hours a day, seven days a week. On top of personal care, they shop for groceries, prepare meals, clean the house and do laundry – all things Weast is unable to do herself.
“We aren’t just doing stuff that is inconvenient or tougher for her to do,” said Cassie Crooms-Young, who has worked for Weast for 20 years. “She can’t do that at all. She can’t prepare a meal.”
Weast earned $100,000 in 2016 – standard pay for the most experienced Roseville Joint Union High School District teachers.
Single disabled people who work lose Medi-Cal eligibility when their income exceeds $29,700 annually or 250 percent of the federal poverty level, according to state of California. They are allowed to subtract work-related expenses from their incomes to meet the eligibility requirement – deductions that amounted to tens of thousands of dollars for Weast.
Until now, she also had successfully defended her eligibility since it was first challenged in 1999.
After Weast was informed three years ago that her salary minus expenses again exceeded the allowed amount, her friends – many from Oakmont High – sprang into motion, calling legislators, disability advocacy groups and potential benefactors. She appealed the decision to end her funding with the help of a lawyer friend, but lost the appeal in 2015.
“We exhausted all avenues and turned to fundraising to help pay for Jenny’s caregivers, as a safety net if she’s cut off,” said Linda DiJohn, who began helping Weast two years ago. “Sadly, that day has come.”
Despite the six-figure salary, Weast said she can’t afford the monthly payments of $4,000 for caregivers, $1,000 for the mortgage, $1,000 for a modified van, as well as the cost of utilities, food, gasoline, insurance and other expenses. She said she brings home $5,400 a month after taxes.
People don’t understand how expensive it is to be disabled, Weast said. She ticked off some of the costs: $10,000 for the lift that moves her from her bed to the shower or wheelchair, a share of the cost of each $5,000 wheelchair, roughly $750 a month for aides to help grade papers and do other work related to her job, as well as extra pay for caregivers whenever she needs to go away for the night or the weekend.
There is no way to know how many disabled people leave the workforce because they fear losing benefits, said Barbara Kornblau, a consultant for the United Spinal Association, an advocacy group for the disabled. “This is one of the most under-researched areas,” she said. “We don’t have data.”
Retiring also won’t solve her problem because she would still have too much pension income to receive benefits, she said.
The caregivers’ salaries will be covered for the next seven months by $27,000 collected over the last two years through an online YouCaring fundraising page. Now, her friends are turning their energy to finding a sustainable source of money beyond that.
“She’s humble, proud and realistic and it kills her to feel like she’s having to beg for assistance,” said Kathy Roseler, who was Weast’s counselor at the Department of Rehabilitation after her accident 40 years ago. “She was really sick this last year. It takes its toll on her health.”
Weast rejects suggestions that she quit her teaching job. “It gives you a purpose. You go in there and every day you are challenged,” she said. “You have a reason to be excited. You have a reason to work really hard. You laugh every day. You are amazed every day by what the kids say and do.”
In return, Weast offers her students a different perspective on perseverance. “That’s big in my class,” she said. “I’m the wrong teacher to say you can’t do it to. ... There are going to be tougher things than the math class that will hit them later in life.”
Jolie Geluk, a teacher at Oakmont who also was a former student of Weast’s, said, credits her for cultivating her interest in teaching by encouraging her to tutor other students. “When you have her as a teacher you don’t see the wheelchair,” she said.
She is upset about the decision to stop paying for Weast’s caregivers. “It’s so frustrating and asinine,” Geluk said. “That’s how strongly I feel. All she needs to be a productive part of society is to have someone to get her up in the morning and put her in a wheelchair.”
Weast’s Facebook page features pictures of the teacher at weddings, holding babies on her lap and attending other life celebrations with former students.
Andi Bortoletto, a cheerleader for Oakmont High from 1996 to 2000, remembers Weast as the host of fundraisers, barbecues and scavenger hunts for her cheer squad throughout the year, even organizing an annual party at the end of each school year featuring a video montage of the year.
“We went to nationals at Disneyland every year,” Bortoletto said. “We would take Weast with us (on the rides) so we didn’t have to wait in lines. I had to hold her because she loved the rides. Crazy rides.”
Weast was a 16-year-old junior at Del Campo High School in 1977 when she was injured in a skiing accident at Alpine Meadows. It left her paralyzed below the neck with limited use of her arms and hands.
Roseler encouraged Weast to go to college and to get a career.
“At the time, laws were in place to provide incentive to not collect Social Security and live on welfare,” Roseler said. “But the laws have not changed to accommodate for a longer life span and the improved technological advances that allow more people to go to work.”
The accident didn’t diminish Weast’s love of adventure, and she returned to Alpine Meadows in 2010 to ski the mountain with an instructor on a bi-ski with the Achieve Tahoe program. She also has gone tandem skydiving and whitewater rafting.
“Skiing is my passion, absolutely my passion,” Weast said. “In the beginning – after I got hurt – mentally I couldn’t do it. ... It got put on the back burner.”
Weast is optimistic about the latest hurdle in her life. “I’m thinking positively,” she said. “It will work out. I have to believe it will work out. We will find a way somehow.”
Fundraiser for Jenny Weast
Friends are collecting funds on YouCaring to help pay for caregivers for Jenny Weast: https://www.youcaring.com/medical-fundraiser/caregiver-funding/262944