YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – What began 50 years ago as a substance abuse informational hotline with a handful of volunteers is today a network dedicated to helping tens of thousands of people in distress and need.
Help Network of Northeast Ohio has since grown into an operation that serves five counties in the region, says its CEO Vince Brancaccio. “Our core service is our suicide crisis hotline,” he says. “Everything we do beyond that is prevention.”
September is National Suicide Prevention Month, Brancaccio says, and the agency is rolling out a new campaign in tandem with its 50th year to generate awareness and support.
“We need to get the message out there that this is something in our community, our state and in our country,” Brancaccio says.
Among the events scheduled this month is a fundraiser in partnership with local fitness centers, Brancaccio says. The event, Pumping Iron for Suicide Prevention, enlists the help of three gyms: BSS Fitness Mahoning in Boardman, Onyx Health Club in Niles, and MI Gym Fitness Center in Columbiana. The event invites weightlifters to compete for prizes while raising money for a good cause.
BSS Fitness will host the first event Sept. 4, while Onyx will host the competition on Sept. 11, and MI Gym on Sept. 25.
Help Network will also embark on a community outreach effort that involves education sessions, media appearances, an open house to stakeholders and a donor drive to raise money for the agency’s programs.
Community support is vital to the organization and its success, says board member John Mercer, senior gift officer at Mercy Health Foundation.
A financial goal has not been set yet for the campaign, he says. Frank Hierro, Mahoning Valley market president of Premier Bank who is retiring in October, will serve as the campaign’s chairman.
“We’re looking at launching this in the fall, running it through the winter and wrap up with a special event in the spring,” Mercer says.
More importantly, the effort raises awareness of how important the organization is to the community. “The impact has been immeasurable,” he says. “Just think of the lives that have been saved over the last 50 years.”
Help Network serves clients Mahoning, Trumbull, Columbiana, Ashtabula and Lake counties in Ohio. Today, the organization employs 57 people and has an operating budget of nearly $3 million, Brancaccio says.
This call to action comes at a critical time, Brancaccio says, as the effects of COVID-19 are still pulsing through northeastern Ohio.
The pandemic has exacerbated feelings of isolation and loneliness – especially among the most vulnerable – and many have turned to substance abuse to cope with this stress.
“Before the pandemic, we got about 1,400 calls a week,” he says. As COVID-19 intensified, those calls surged to about 2,500 during the peak months last year. Many of these calls were because people were short on food, needed help with utilities, or faced possible homelessness.
More recently, calls to the agency are from those who express anxiety and distress. “They’re depressed, anxious and wanting someone to talk to. My concern is that nine months after a disaster is when you really start seeing the trauma. These are things that we need to be ready for.”
Suicide claims five people every day in Ohio. “If you think about it, that’s 1,800 families each year that are going to be affected by suicide,” he says. “The thought of losing a loved one to suicide is unacceptable.”
Brancaccio says the organization has expanded into services that are intended to help individuals from ever contemplating taking their own lives.
Help Network receives more than 130,000 calls a year, but also provides face-to-face services to more than 800 clients, Brancaccio says.
“If they call our crisis hotline and are in need of food, or they’re about to be homeless, if they’re struggling with a mental health issue or a substance abuse issue, we’re the place to call,” he says. “Our goal is to get them to a point where they don’t get so distressed and they feel helpless.”
Pictured: Help Network’s Chief Financial Officer Todd Marian and CEO Vince Brancaccio.