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PATH's board and staff are 'shocked and deeply saddened' after losing 988 call center grant

A sign outside the main offices for PATH Crisis Center in Bloomington
Melissa Ellin
PATH Crisis Center in Bloomington found out Friday that it would no longer house the statewide call center for 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline services come July.

Illinois is moving its statewide call center for the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline from Bloomington to Southern Illinois starting in July.

Rod Ebert, board president for PATH Crisis Center, which became the state’s first backup 988 call center in 2022, said Tuesday that everyone was surprised by the news.

“The Board of Directors is shocked and deeply saddened that PATH was not selected for the statewide 988 grant,” he wrote to WGLT on behalf of the board. “As an organization, it was an honor to fulfill this vital role for people in need for the past two plus years.”

The Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) informed PATH of its decision Friday, at which point the nonprofit had to notify all of the staff whose salaries were dependent on the $9.5 million grant associated with the contract that they would be let go at the end of the current grant cycle, June 30.

Two crisis counselors who work at the organization estimate that just under 100 employees at PATH will be impacted, effectively gutting the staff. PATH also operates the 211 referral service and a homeless services division — which remain unaffected by IDHS' decision — although neither department is nearly as big as the 988 arm of the nonprofit had become.

PATH's board declined to say exactly how many employees are impacted. Interim CEO and Executive Director Adam Carter emailed staff Friday and said PATH intends to do its best to help people find new employment.

Why another agency was chosen

It's unclear why PATH was passed over for the grant. IDHS told WGLT via email that Centerstone — the organization that will take over the call center contract in July — ranked higher during a competitive application scoring process, and pointed out that the nonprofit has “extensive experience in the 988 system, and also serves as a national backup call center.”

IDHS did not say what, if anything, caused PATH to rank lower after already operating the statewide call center for two years.

However, PATH has publicly struggled for the past year following the death of its former CEO, and this is not the first grant it’s lost out on in recent months.

Part-time crisis counselor Susie Kempf said she thinks the decision probably had a lot to do with former Interim CEO and Executive Director Martha Evans. During her roughly 9-month stint in the role, Evans made sweeping changes to the organization, including the decision to terminate Carter — then, the assistant director of the 988 call center — and several other staff members.

“I think that she really kind of dropped the ball and failed us,” Kempf said of Evans. “And Adam was kind of left scrambling to put the pieces back together is just my intuition feeling.”

The board brought Carter back to lead the organization roughly two months before the statewide call center application opened — and three months before it closed.

Kempf said “it was defeating” for those like her and fellow crisis counselor Laura McKinney, who’d seen the positive change Carter had on the call center.

McKinney said it was a “night and day difference” between the two interim leaders.

“It was more positive (with Carter in charge). I could tell people enjoyed being at work a little bit more, so we were all very caught off guard,” she said. “It was just very shocking.”

How employees are responding

Both McKinney and Kempf were on shift Friday when staff were informed of their looming layoffs.

Kempf said the email went out and almost immediately after, Carter gathered everyone in a room — including Kempf and McKinney who were working remote and had to be called in — to tell people in person.

“Pretty much everyone was in tears,” Kempf recalled.

The crisis counselors added that staff were still finding out about the news Monday, since there was an alternate shift of people working. Kempf said she went in person that day to offer moral support, something she said PATH has done a good job of doing as well, allowing for breaks as needed and being available to listen.

“They pretty much told all of us, ‘You guys do what you need to go to get through this timeframe,’” she said, adding that when the team Monday found out, several people left early to cope.

Kempf said she imagines it’s going to be “really difficult” with 90 or so people all looking for mental health-related jobs in the same geographical area. She added that she’s lucky to live close to Peoria as well, which opens her options.

Meanwhile, McKinney just signed a lease in Normal so she could be closer to PATH’s call center. Now, she’ll want to find other employment in town. She’s starting a graduate program soon, though, and said she’s optimistic for her outcome.

“It's not an end to my goals and aspirations to help those in need, so I'm going to figure out a way to do it one way or another,” she said.

Kempf, McKinney and all of the other 988 staff still have until the end of June to continue services through PATH’s call center — when the current state contract ends. IDHS said it doesn’t expect any disruption to 988 operations as Centerstone takes over its new role.

Kempf and McKinney said they hope when people stumble across job applicants in the coming months who have PATH’s 988 call center recently on their resume, employers snatch them up quick.

“I think that the training and the skills that we acquired are that of a licensed professional counselor,” Kempf said.

We depend on your support to keep telling stories like this one. WGLT’s mental health coverage is made possible in part by Report For America and Chestnut Health Systems. Please take a moment to donate now and add your financial support to fully fund this growing coverage area so we can continue to serve the community.

Melissa Ellin is a reporter at WGLT and a Report for America corps member, focused on mental health coverage.