Q & A With Pat Leone

Contact Community Services director says calls to the agency’s hotline and suicide prevention has remained steady during the pandemic

By Mary Beth Roach

Pat Leone has been the executive director of Contact Community Services for a little more than 14 years. It’s an organization that has operated 24/7 since it was started in 1971. Its mission, as Leone puts it, “is to support the social, emotional, behavioral and mental health of children, youth and adults. Our goal is to improve the quality of their lives.” It provides 24-hour telephone counseling, suicide prevention, crisis counseling, information and referral. Leone oversees a $5 million budget, a staff of 55 full-time and about 35 part-time employees, along with, as she puts it, “the gift of about 50 volunteers.”

Q: During the pandemic, have you seen an uptick in hotline calls or need for services?

A: I think the uptick really has been on the 2-1-1 end. It’s really been more the information and referral. Onondaga County was giving out clear information, and we help them. Surprisingly, we haven’t seen an uptick in our hotline services – either the local Contact Hotline or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which we do answer regionally in New York state. What we have seen over time was an increase in the complexity of those calls and those concerns, those crises. Or, again, the stress related to the uncertainly seemed to increase. But we’re this far into this, I think we’re just holding our breath, waiting, to actually see that increase in the number of more crisis-related calls.

Q: Is that because you think it’s just been so long, and people are afraid?

A: I think it’s been so long, and we still have no national plan and we still don’t know where we’re going or what we’re doing. Things change from day to day. I think people are starting to feel traumatized.

Q: Do you need more volunteers to staff the calls or whatever other roles your volunteers fill?

A: Generally, I would say yes. At this moment in time, I would say no. It’s really just because, given the situation, it’s such an intensive training and it’s such an in-person training, for such a long period of time, we’d rather work with those folks that we have than try to bring on new volunteers now.

Q: You’ve been with the agency now for a little over 14 years. What would you say has been the most rewarding aspect of your job?

A: There’s so many things. I think I’d have to pick is that how amazed I am with the caliber of persons I work with — whether they’re a staff person or a volunteer. How committed they are to the work that they do and to provide the very best service for folks as they can.

Q: What is the budget for the whole agency and how is it funded?

A: It’s just over $5 million. We’re primarily funded through different types of contracts and grants. We have some governmental contracts — federal, state, and local — and we also have non-governmental contracts, which primarily would be with different school districts. Through the Crisis Intervention Services, we do a lot of what we would say a contract or a for-fee service that would often be after-hours for different mental health clinics and facilities, so they get that 24-hour coverage. We’re on 24 hours a day.

Q: Some of those contracts that you have are with entities that are facing their own financial difficulties. So how has that impacted your operation?

A: I think right now that’s the 20-million-dollar-question. How badly is the state being hit? How badly is the county being hit? What did they know that they’re able to share with us or not share with us? What does that mean in terms of our planning? Right now, we do anticipate we absolutely will be facing some budget cuts, particularly as we hit 2021. We just don’t know exactly what they will or won’t be. We’re waiting to see. We were so happy to see that the county had a little bit of reprieve for October in terms of sales tax, which we’re hoping, without any direct information, that will also translate into a slower cut, if you will, from the county for not-for-profits.

Q: You mentioned the two divisions – Crisis Intervention Services and the School Services Division. What kind of work does each one of those divisions do?

A: I’d say the unifying factor is that no matter what service or program in Contact, we’re really a prevention or early intervention program. In Crisis Intervention Services, the modality they use is telephonic. We do a lot of stuff via phone or online. Things are a little bit more anonymous. Or it might be text. That end of the agency has been open 24 hours a day, seven days a week since 1971. With Crisis Intervention Services, we would have the stuff that really is a crisis. We’re there to kind of de-escalate, to get [people] to a better place more quickly. We’re there to support them, to get help to them, if need be. Next to that, and this has been the last 10 or 15 years, we’ve added more of the information and referral piece, so we function as a 2-1-1. We’re AIRS certified [Association for Information and Referral Services]. Finally, we do the community support, where we do training on suicide prevention. We support the Onondaga County Suicide Prevention Coalition.

School Services are prevention- and early intervention-focused. They can be working with children themselves, families, children and their families. They can be working with teachers, but that tends to focus on the social and emotional development and learning and behavioral. We work in quite a few districts. We’re in the city of Syracuse, we’re in Solvay Union Free, Liverpool, East Syracuse-Minoa and North Syracuse, primarily. Until the pandemic we were in the school on a daily basis. Now, we’re learning as quickly as we can how to support both in person and remotely.

For those in crisis or need information or referrals, visit contactsyracuse.org. A screen will pop up with pertinent phones to call for assistance.