State College, PA - Centre County - Central Pennsylvania - Home of Penn State University

Mother's Lessons Help Guide Director Of Community Help Centre

by on March 10, 2014 6:00 AM

For Community Help Centre program director Bonnie Tatterson, the importance of helping others was something she learned from an early age.

"I was a child of the 60's," says Tatterson, whose first job after graduating with a social worker degree from Temple University was working in a runaway and homeless shelter in West Virginia. "John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy - they were big influences on me as a kid."

While growing up in Blair County, Pa., Tatterson's mother encouraged her to be aware of social issues, and stressed the importance of giving back to the community. A staunch supporter of human rights, her mother walked alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. during the famous "March on Washington."

"I was introduced early to social consciousness and to pay attention to what's going on in the world, and see if you can contribute instead of just enjoying the good life," says Tatterson.

After spending many years helping women in rural West Virginia, Tatterson moved to State College in 1997 with her husband, who was pursuing a doctoral degree at Penn State. It was here where she got involved with local philanthropic efforts, eventually becoming the program director of the Community Help Centre, where she's worked for the past four years.

Started in 1973 by a group of Penn State students, faculty, and community members, the Community Help Centre is an outreach program committed to providing education and information for people with emotional needs and substance abuse problems, The organization has since evolved into what Tatterson calls the "hub of social services" in Centre County.

"That very, very small mission grew into what is now 24-hour, 365 days-a-year information, referral, and emotional support," says Tatterson, who oversees a staff of 60 volunteers, five support staff, and three interns.

Along with a 24/7 crisis hotline, the non-profit organization has a drop-in counseling center located on 410 S. Fraser Street in State College to provide short-term emotional support and referral services. In addition, the organization provides transportation to critical medical services, as well as case management to clients who are struggling with financial issues. There is also an emergency food pantry located on site.

Tatterson says the idea of the 24/7 hotline was to be a resource to help people trying to wade through the many human service options that are available. Now it's become the organization's "bread and butter", says Tatterson, assisting over 12,000 people last year.

Before they ever pick up the phone, volunteer counselors receive 180 hours of classroom training and 30 hours of supervised probation to prepare for any eventuality and make the right decision -- even assessing a possible suicide and alerting the proper authorities.

"We want to make sure people are prepared for the hotline, because pretty much any type of call can come in," says volunteer director Gayle Beese.

If people call looking for more than just information or referral to another service, there is a case manager available to take them through a step-by-step process. Tatterson says that people often need budgeting and financial assistance, and the case manager is there to offer one-on-one counseling in order to analyze financial decisions and identify eligible programs and other resources.

"It's a lot more expensive if somebody gets evicted than it is to give them a hand up for one month," says Tatterson. "It's a lot more expensive to get your phone or lights turned off to get them turned back on than if you got a little bit of help one month.

Tatterson remembers the story of one young woman, a single mother with two young children, who was a victim of domestic violence. After fleeing her home to live in a women's shelter, she called the center looking for help to find a new place to live. She found an apartment, but couldn't afford the first month's rent and security deposit, a combined $1,300. The Community Help Centre staff worked with several churches to come up with the money that she needed to get to a safe place with her kids.

"That's the kind of work that we do," says Tatterson. "The kind of work that she would have waited quite a long time to get wealthier, to get cash assistance to help her get on her feet, and we were able to do something for her that was really practical and needed, and we were able to do it because a lot of people in the community are generous."

While praising the generosity of the community, Tatterson says there are a number of the issues facing Centre County that are often overlooked. Due to the allure of a top-tier university like Penn State, some issues can be hiding in plain sight.

"Housing is a real problem," says Tatterson. "Workforce housing is almost non-existent. So people that work in this town can't afford to live here. So they're living further out, where property is more affordable, and new affordable housing is not being built."

She notes that part of the problem is the university, which she claims skews the housing market.

"Housing that's being built in this town is for students," she adds. "Students can pay $1,200, or $1,400, or $1,600 hundred a month because there's four families chipping in. A working family can't do that."

As the program director, Tatterson says she has to "keep a lot of balls in the air", and is busy recruiting and supervising volunteers, fundraising, working on grant development, and keeping tabs on community work. As chair of the Community Safety Net, a group of 19 emergency human services and facilitator of the volunteer board, she understands the importance of volunteerism to help create a positive climate for change.

"It's really important to understand that a lot of folks call us because they have nobody else to call," says Tatterson. "There are a whole lot of people in this county that are struggling to make ends meet. So I think it's imperative that we're here."

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C.J. Doon is a frequent contributor to Onward State and is a former intern. A Long Island native, Doon is studying print journalism at Penn State.
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