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'Deeper than a job': Bozeman Help Center celebrates 50 years of service

Help Center 50 Year Anniversary

Crisis Counselors Perrin Lundgren and Luke Williams answer phone calls at the Help Center on March 11, 2021. 

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As smoke rose off the Bridger Mountains this past September, a few volunteers in a house within an eyeshot of the plume made calls to get people connected with services and answered questions about the fire.

Bozeman’s 211 crisis line volunteers wore masks inside the small green home on Peach Street to prevent the spread of COVID-19. There were plexiglass dividers on each desk for the same reason. Phones were constantly ringing — they answered 572 calls related to the Bridger Foothills fire.

Some were trying to get information about if they could return to their homes or where to stay. Others wanted to know how to help.

“It was a madhouse,” said Christina Powell, the Executive Director for the Help Center, Inc., the nonprofit that runs the 24-hour crisis line.

Help Center 50 Year Anniversary

Perrin Lundgren, a crisis counselor and community educator, talks with a client at the Help Center on March 11, 2021. 

The organization’s response to the fire is one example of how the Help Center serves Gallatin and several surrounding counties in Montana and Wyoming — a service that will on Monday celebrate its 50th anniversary.

Throughout the past five decades, the nonprofit has been known as a suicide prevention service. But it’s grown with the needs of its residents, providing counseling and outreach services to anyone in need.

As part of the organization’s 50th anniversary, the Help Center hopes to raise $50,000 in five months and attract 50 new donors. The fundraiser is scheduled to run until Aug. 22.

When it started in 1971, the organization ran its operation in a home on Wallace Street with a simple sign outside that read “HELP.” In 1992, the nonprofit moved to the house on Peach Street and updated its sign to read “Help Center” with a slogan, “we never close.”

Help Center 50 Year Anniversary

The original headquarters for the Help Center opened in 1971 on Wallace Street.

It’s been at that location ever since.

Since its opening, volunteers and employees have made a little more than 500,000 calls, whether that be people calling into the crisis line or counselors doing welfare checks.

The Help Center answers an average of 900 calls each month. Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, that number has grown to 1,030 calls per month with increases in calls about substance abuse, sleep problems and mental health care options. The organization takes calls and walk-in appointments for a variety of issues.

But the organization’s work goes beyond phone calls and the little green house.

It started as an all-encompassing crisis center for callers and walk-in customers. Over the years, it added a sexual assault counseling center, the Gallatin County child advocacy center and hearts and homes family resource center, among many other free resources. It’s also responsible for Bozeman’s Sacks Thrift Store.

People and organizations who work or previously worked with the nonprofit said it has become more than just a center for people in need — it’s a home where many have learned to be compassionate counselors.

Help Center 50 Year Anniversary

In 1992, the Help Center moved to their present location on Peach Street.

The Help Center was one of the first agencies in the northwest to provide trauma-informed care for victims during a time when the counseling industry was not supportive of the approach, said Powell, the executive director. She said the center started from scratch on trauma-informed care programs and called it a “brave” thing to do at the time, something it continues to practice today.

“It’s really not afraid of other people being critical, and that’s unusual,” Powell said.

Tricia Mayes, a licensed clinical professional counselor in Bozeman and former employee at the Help Center, said the organization is one of the most inclusive places she’s ever worked. There’s never an “I don’t know” at the Help Center, she said, volunteers are trained to always find the answers for callers.

Mayes said she owes the Help Center, personally and professionally, and that she’s grateful to have an organization like the nonprofit where she lives.

“Our community is better because of it,” Mayes said. “I don’t know what would happen if the Help Center wasn’t there — they fill so many holes.”

The Help Center partners with other nonprofits and organizations to do just that — fill holes. Counselors there train employees in other organizations like Montana State University to better understand how to approach people in crisis.

Organizations like the Human Resource Development Council can refer people to the Help Center, allowing HRDC to focus on other issues, said Sara Savage, HRDC associate director.

The Help Center as an invaluable partner and the people there provide critical services, Savage said. She said the Help Center goes above and beyond for people in need. It’s become a site for emergency food distribution when HRDC’s food bank isn’t open.

“There’s really no one else providing services like the Help Center does, and they’re there for us 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” she said. “We count on them greatly as part of our safety net for the community.”

Help Center 50 Year Anniversary

Perrin Lundgren, a crisis counselor and community educator, talks with a client at the Help Center on March 11, 2021.

Savage said the absence of the organization is scary to think about. People could make “really dangerous” decisions if they didn’t have a place to turn or someone, like the people at the center, to reach out to them, she said.

“I think we live in an incredible community, but it can be so isolating for some,” Savage said. “And I think the Help Center breaks down those walls of isolation for so many folks in the community that would otherwise feel alone.”

Kathy Allen, the Help Center’s program manager, has worked with the organization since the 1990s and said she’s grateful for the people who’ve helped her grow as a professional and in her personal life. She said “it’s been home” to her for almost 30 years. Allen credits all her knowledge in counseling and behavioral health to the organization.

“It’s bigger and deeper than a job,” Allen said.

The care the center provides for its volunteers and the people who call is “beyond anything that could be provided in many other places,” she said.

Volunteers attend 60 hours of training — learning active listening and what issues may come up on the hotline — before getting on the phone. A third of that time is dedicated to dealing with calls from people who have suicidal ideations.

“It’s a place where I basically learned to be a counselor and learned to provide very client-centered services,” Allen said.

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Freddy Monares can be reached at fmonares@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2630.

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