PATH's 'DNA' Retires After 36 Years With 211 Hotline Her Legacy
Few people have provided more access to help in McLean County over the last four decades than Karen Zangerle.
Friday is Zangerle's last day at PATH (Providing Access To Help), the Bloomington-based crisis agency where she is retiring as executive director after working 36 of its 50 years of operation.
“I certainly made my mark on this agency,” Zangerle said in an interview on WGLT's Sound Ideas. “I’m fond of saying my DNA is embedded in the walls, but the DNA want to go home. They are tired of the walls.”
Zangerle said she believes the 211 social service hotline will be her legacy.
McLean County started a pilot program in 2009 after she heard about a similar program in Atlanta, Ga. and worked with the Illinois legislature for more than a decade to adopt a similar program. PATH volunteers now take 211 calls from 49 Illinois counties. Zangerle said 211 became a vital and easy-to-remember resource, especially for people who don't access social services often.
“If you are a middle manager at State Farm and your 13-year-old son runs away at 1 a.m., the family sits there and (says) ‘What do we do? What is the next step?” Zangerle asked.
Zangerle thinks 211 will eventually be available statewide, but she said PATH hasn’t looked to expand north of Interstate 80, where she said social service resources are generally more widely available.
Zangerle said Illinois plans to fund a 988 suicide hotline starting next year as part of a nationwide initiative.
Zangerle said PATH also has helped get people out of homelessness by working with area shelters and the faith community, but she said mental health and substance abuse remain the biggest barriers to getting people the help they need.
“We continuously struggle as we tackle different types of people and how they are experiencing homelessness,” she said. “I really don’t think we will solve homelessness until we have rock solid treatment for mental illness and substance abuse.”
She said McLean County’s mental health initiatives, including a triage center and expanded treatments at the jail have helped.
Zangerle estimates the homeless population in Bloomington-Normal is about 200. That includes those who regularly stay at shelters. She said the population varies based on the time of year as winter weather prompts some to move further south.
Zangerle said the tent encampment of about 20 people that has formed in west Bloomington where a Panda Express restaurant has been approved will eventually have to move. She said PATH has outreach workers who will talk to the residents and help them find other housing options.
"Some of them may agree to work with the program to get some things done. What eventually happens is there’s going to be a group of them that finds a new place and they’ll move on,” she said.
Zangerle noted the coronavirus made is especially difficult for the homeless population, as shelters had to limit capacity and some were left out in the cold during the harshest days of winter, until McLean County and some religious organizations provided funding to pay for hotel stays when PATH had exhausted its shelter funding.
“When we got through this winter, I said that’s it, I’ve made it. I have never had to experience the horror of someone dying of cold on the streets of Bloomington-Normal,” she said.
Zangerle said she has seen a lot of heartache and suffering, noting her faith has helped her endure sot she can continue to find help for those who need it most.
“That for me has always been the stabilizing force in dealing with tragedy and horrible situations I’ve been exposed to that no human being should even have to see,” she said.
PATH has named Chris Workman its new executive director. The Normal native has 30 years of experience in human services, academic and business consulting experience in Illinois and Kentucky.
Zangerle said her advice for Workman was brief: put people’s needs first.
“We may (have) someone who is a pedophile who is an alcoholic who is eating up resources. If that person calls and says they don’t have anywhere to go tonight, we have to ignore all of those other things,” Zangerle said.
Zangerle volunteered for PATH before she worked for the non-profit. She plans to volunteer again, helping to answer off-hours calls that PATH takes about elder abuse complaints for the Illinois Department on Aging.