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‘I Want to Change the World’

Rural Texans are in good hands with Aunt Bertha, a motherly website figure who knows where to find help

In 2010, Roy Spence launched his Royito’s Hot Sauce brand from an Airstream trailer to drive home a salient belief: “Entrepreneurship,” he says, “is the miracle of America.” Certainly, Spence, who oversees one of the world’s most successful advertising agencies, Austin-based GSD&M Idea City, didn’t need to start selling hot sauce for the money. Rather, he’s making a point: Anybody can start a business from a trailer, or a kitchen, or a garage or a booth at a farmer’s market.

But for the miracle to happen, young—and young at heart, Spence quickly adds—entrepreneurs need help, he says. That’s why he partnered with RISE, an Austin-based nonprofit program dedicated to inspiring and empowering entrepreneurs, to create the $5,000 Royito’s “Don’t Do Mild” RISE Award. Last year’s inaugural winner, Erine Gray of Austin, created a website called Aunt Bertha that organizes information for many of the state’s assistance programs—education, employment, food, health and housing—and other nonprofit and charitable programs and puts it in one place.

The site provides free, one-stop shopping for human-service information: Just type in your ZIP code, and Aunt Bertha, a fictional, motherly character, will find services in your area, from food pantries to literacy and education programs. And Aunt Bertha greets each user. A 79045 search, for example—the ZIP code for Hereford, headquarters of Deaf Smith Electric Cooperative—yielded this response: “Great news, Sugar! There are 52 programs in your area.”

No more looking for a needle in a haystack, says Gray, a 36-year-old computer programmer who has long been frustrated with what he calls the inefficient administration of some large, human-service organizations that get bogged down in bureaucracy.

“It sounds clichéd,” says Gray, who earned a master’s degree from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin, “but I want to change the world.”

That sounds a lot like something Spence would say. Save for the chile pequin peppers—Spence uses serranos instead—Royito’s Hot Sauce follows his father’s recipe: fresh tomatoes, lemon juice and salt in addition to the serrano peppers. But most significant, Spence says, the hot sauce is made in honor of the late Roy Milam Spence Sr., a World War II veteran and successful salesman, who taught his son to be kind, keep it simple and never do anything mild.

Spence was a fast learner. At 6, he turned the dreaded backyard chore of picking thorny blackberries into enterprise: He filled wooden crates with the required amount of fruit for his mother and grandmother and sold the rest door to door. “This is what people don’t understand,” he says. “I’m not a business person. I’m an entrepreneur. I love to create things that weren’t there before.”

It’s no surprise then that Spence—who calls small-business operators “the real engine of job growth in our free-enterprise system”—is pitching a TV show called “Dream It, Build It” to network executives. Spence, who would host the show, explains the premise: Fledging entrepreneurs, “dreamers,” from across America would be selected to tell their stories and then be paired with mentors, such as Southwest Airlines founder and Chairman Emeritus Herb Kelleher, who would guide entrepreneurs on the road to success. The dreamers could be just about anybody, Spence says, such as an out-of-work lawyer who wants to become a farmer.

The idea, Spence says, is to nurture the flame of entrepreneurship, like cupping one’s hands around a just-ignited campfire ember. But don’t expect anything like “The Apprentice,” a show on which Donald Trump gives contestants a cold-hearted boot. “That idea is somebody has to get hurt to lift somebody up,” Spence says. “I’m not in that business.”

Aunt Bertha to the Rescue

Gray’s one-of-a-kind website adopts a similar approach: Perhaps you’re a single mom struggling to pay rent and buy groceries. Maybe you’ve been laid off from work, and resources are drying up fast. Or maybe you’re among those who have stable jobs but are drowning in credit-card debt.

Millions of Texans, from all walks of life, need help with their daily existences, whether locating a food pantry, obtaining free or low-cost health insurance for their children, or conferring with a financial counselor. But where does one turn? Whom does one ask? Where can one find complete and easy-to-understand information about assistance programs?

A casual Internet search for such programs—just type in “Texas social services” and see how much comes up—produces scores of websites. But beyond the home page, how does one move through the maze of options and complex language concerning eligibility requirements that can bog down these directory sites?

And even when toll-free phone numbers are provided, how do you connect with that perfect person who’ll know what exactly what you’re talking about and what you need?

So much information is right at our fingertips—but without the equivalent of a decoder ring, some people, in frustration, give up on trying to navigate convoluted human-resource websites seemingly geared toward insiders who already understand the system.

Enter Gray, who nurtured a dream into reality: a website that puts information for local, state and federal assistance programs—namely food, health, housing and education— in one simply designed, confusion-free place. The website, Gray says, is being built as the world’s most comprehensive, user-friendly marketplace for human services.

Gray launched the website in June 2011, unveiling the antithesis of a cold, bureaucratic entity: Meet Aunt Bertha, a gray-haired yet youthful-looking motherly figure who wears lots of mascara, bright red lipstick and a perpetual wink as she greets visitors to her site.

The instructions on the website’s home page are in big, bold type and immediately clear: Enter your ZIP code, wait a few seconds and watch the results come up, accompanied by Aunt Bertha’s standardized message.

A recent search of my Austin ZIP code yielded this Aunt Bertha greeting: “Great news, Sugar! There are 229 programs in your area.” The category-program breakdown, given below the message, was as follows: food, 27; health, 33; employment, 31, housing, 48; education, 54; and other, 36 (including Social Security’s child insurance benefits and a clothing allowance program for military veterans).

Clicking on category names brings up program synopses, eligibility requirements and agencies’ contact information.

The program numbers will change per ZIP code, and metropolitan areas, obviously, will offer more across the board. But on Aunt Bertha, every ZIP code in Texas—rural and urban—is linked to the same overall database. If it’s a state-provided assistance program, Texans are going to see it come up on a search, whether they live in the Panhandle town of Gruver or Falfurrias in the Rio Grande Valley.

Tracking data on the Aunt Bertha site can generate change, Gray says. For example, documenting the number of monthly visits to food pantries in particular areas could show the need for extended hours. Or say that more families start applying for health insurance in rural regions: Such data could drive the demand for more doctors and improved medical care.

As of March, Gray was zeroing in on rolling out information for the entire state, meaning that virtually any ZIP code search would produce a snapshot of all the assistance programs—including those run by volunteers and nonprofit agencies—available in a community and surrounding counties.

“If we don’t cover everybody, we’re not going to reach our goals,” says Gray, who earned an economics degree from Indiana University.

As Gray puts it, he likes to fix things that are broken. During his stint with the City of Austin as a business analyst from January 2005 to August 2006, Gray, an avid runner, helped start what today is called the City of Austin PE Department. The volunteer exercise program offers flex time and other incentive-based benefits for employees who participate in various classes and workouts.

Then, immediately starting a contract job that lasted four years, Gray helped the Texas Health and Human Services Commission modernize the way people apply for eligibility programs. Part of the solution: Build call centers, allowing for anybody in the state to apply by phone.

Similarly, Gray has big altruistic plans for Aunt Bertha. At the heart of his ultimate goal, which is scheduled to be in place this spring, is a system allowing Aunt Bertha users to apply for assistance programs on the website, bypassing what can be an exasperating process on other sites. Aunt Bertha’s system is being designed to aid local and state agencies and nonprofits and charities as well, offering them application processing at lower costs and bringing them clients.

Many government-administered programs are unnecessarily complex, says Gray, who long has pondered the question of why people who would qualify for assistance sometimes don’t receive it or don’t pursue it. “Nothing frustrates me more than the ambivalence that tends to occur in large human-service organizations,” he says.

It’s not that those organizations are cold and uncaring, Gray says. It’s more a matter, he says, of bureaucratic red tape clogging the system and leading to the kinds of inefficiencies that prolong eligibility-requirement and application processes.

On a chilly November afternoon, over coffee and pastries at a popular Austin hangout, Gray discussed some of the other complications he’s observed that keep individuals separated from help. First, Gray said, there’s often a stigma attached to seeking assistance—some people don’t want to be seen as dependent. They’re afraid of being judged. Second, because the human-services organizational structure can be so cumbersome, some people grow discouraged and lack the courage or energy to make a call to a social worker or caseworker.

And in perhaps the most perplexing problem of all, Gray said, some individuals facing a problem, such as a recent layoff, become emotionally paralyzed, doing nothing. So they wait, hoping things will get better, but things only get worse.

To illustrate, Gray drew a diagram in red ink on a brown paper napkin. Under five circles, from left to right, he wrote the words crisis, at-risk, safe, stable and thriving. By sitting in fear, he said, individuals can inadvertently move toward crisis and away from safety. By seeking help, they can move the opposite way, beyond safety and toward self-sufficiency.

The key, says Gray, who typically works 80 to 100 hours a week, is forward movement—and that’s the spirit of the Aunt Bertha website, which encourages and fosters action. “I didn’t want people to feel like it was a charity,” Gray says, explaining that Aunt Bertha is a lady who knows everything—and that once individuals are armed with information about assistance programs, it’s up to them to go get help.

In other words, don’t expect to camp out on Aunt Bertha’s couch all day, eating cookies and watching TV.

It’s a philosophy that Gray started practicing as a college student, when he spent three summers in Texas working as a door-to-door salesman for an educational book distributor. Gray, who grew up in western New York, quickly learned the back roads of Texas those summer months, living first in Calallen, a small community that’s part of Corpus Christi in Nueces County; then Kenedy, southeast of San Antonio, selling books in nearby Floresville and Wilson County; and finally, Athens, southwest of Tyler in Henderson County.

The job required extensive travel, and Gray, who has a fascination with maps anyway, delightedly learned the names of towns, counties and roads as he unfolded and folded his Texas map. “Driving around rural Texas, I felt at home,” he says. “People were so incredibly friendly.”

After meeting people at their homes, and winning their trust, Gray found himself being invited to barbecues. One couple in Athens grew so fond of Gray that they gave him a straw Resistol cowboy hat he still has today.

The job taught Gray how to connect with people. And above all, he says, it taught him the principle of hard work—knocking on 30 doors during a 10-hour workday doesn’t automatically translate to that many sales. It just means that you worked. Period.

And the experience, Gray says, taught him that he wasn’t entitled—he had to put forth effort just like everybody else. Those summer days in rural Texas, he says, were all about “planting seeds that life is what you make it.”

Camille Wheeler, associate editor