Schenectady County

Behind the hotline: Stories of grief, despair flood Schenectady County’s call center

34 staffers, most of them repurposed library employees, man the county’s hotline
Cindy McKeon fields a call to the county's emergency response hotline on Friday, April 24, 2020.
Cindy McKeon fields a call to the county's emergency response hotline on Friday, April 24, 2020.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

SCHENECTADY — An elderly woman called the county hotline. 

She’s never had to ask for help before. 

But now stuck at home, she didn’t want to venture out to go shopping and asked the county’s Emergency Response Coalition to deliver a food bag. 

The woman cried. 

Sometimes Cindy McKeon cries, too.

“It’s emotional because I’m so grateful for what I have,” said McKeon, who lives on a 58-acre farm in Mariaville. “To take calls from people who have nothing is very humbling.”

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McKeon is among the 34 staffers, most of them repurposed library employees, manning the county’s hotline. 

While originally intended to facilitate food deliveries, the county’s relief operation has morphed into a catch-all during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic:

Volunteers are part-time dispatchers, part-time therapists.

FULLY DEDICATED

“This is so much more than a food call center,” said Jason LeCuyer, coordinator of the county’s central food and supply distribution site at the Boys & Girls Club. “It’s a community information hub, essentially.”

The call center at the Boys & Girls Club in the city’s Mont Pleasant neighborhood has fielded over 13,000 calls since its launch in late-March.

The Daily Gazette visited the center on a recent afternoon. A reporter did not listen-in on calls, but captured discussions as they unfolded.

Karen Bradley took a caller through Matilda’s Law, the state directive requiring vulnerable residents and those under 70 to stay indoors and limit outside contact. 

At 76, the person had health issues, making them vulnerable to the virus.

But their employer demanded they continue to report to work.


Bradley directed them to the state Department of Labor. 

“People are indicating they’re lonely and scared,” Bradley said. “We’re a human voice.”

Calls reveal a kaleidoscope of pain, suffering and anxiety.

Bradley recounted a discussion with a man who is blind with a wife in hospice and a teenager at home.

There was the Ellis Medicine nurse who’d seen the devastation firsthand and didn’t want to venture outside on their day off. 

And there are the hospitalized parents worrying about how to provide for their kids.

“We’ve had people call from the hospital to ask for deliveries for their family,” Bradley said. 

Others, whether due to language barriers or other reasons, are unable to provide their phone numbers or addresses. 

Bradley sometimes recognizes their voices because they’re library patrons. 

“That’s the human part of this,” she said.

DIAPER DEMAND

Staffers rotate between three, three-hour shifts, using county-issued smartphones wired into a single number:

518-621-3536.

A room full of mask-clad people, many with wireless earbuds, give the impression of people talking to themselves.

Calls come in waves, beginning at 9:30 a.m. and dropping off around lunchtime before again spiking at 2 p.m. 

Just one volunteer was fielding a call at 2:25 p.m. 

But within minutes, five of the six phones were vibrating. 

One call came in from the Bronx, another wondered why they didn’t receive their delivery. Someone else wondered about their federal stimulus check.

Volunteers stick to a standard script, asking how many people are in the household, if they have any specific needs or food allergies.

Kaela Wallman guided a caller through the process. 

“Is there anything else specifically you’re in need of?” Wallman asked. 

Diapers.

“I’m not sure what we have on hand,” Wallman said, “but we’ll do our best to get that to you.”

Wallman told the caller when to expect a delivery. Keep your phone close and look out for an unfamiliar number, she said before disconnecting.

“Two in a row,” Wallman said. “Diapers size 6.”

Across the room, another request came in.

“We’re currently sourcing them,” said the volunteer. “Do you need any food?” 

As the crisis sets into its own disjointed rhythm, needs are evolving and the county is attempting to nimbly respond.

Masks are a popular request and the county was flush after receiving 55,000 of them from Fruit of the Loom, as well as paper units.

(For mask-specific requests, call 518-386-2824, ext. 2.)

The recently-sourced diaper cache arrived courtesy of Tara Kitchen patrons, who have been dropping items off at both of the restaurant’s locations, one in Schenectady, the other in Troy. 

Most people are waving off the $10 gift certificate the restaurant is offering as an incentive. 

“In some ways when you ask for one thing, it’s easier for people to do, said Tara Kitchen owner Aneesa Waheed. 

Cleaning supplies are another much-requested item, but the county hasn’t yet been able to secure a supply. 

 

Calls wane after 3 p.m., the cut-off for same-day delivery, which stops at 7:30 p.m. 

But they inch back up again at night when anxiety mounts. 

Those calling after hours will hear back from Yetzabel Miranda, who returns all calls — even those who don’t leave a message.

Volunteers take down requests on paper forms, which they deliver to the data center next door. Workers then log those orders in a database before sending them downstairs where staffers in the facility’s gleaming new gymnasium pack the bags to be distributed out into the community. 

Along with the masks, and all deliveries, come pamphlets promoting resources such as child care, navigating unemployment and other support services. 

FUTURE PLAYBOOK

As the crisis drags out, officials are refining the data collection process. 

And the National Guard has taken over deliveries using county vehicles.

For many, seeing people in uniform is reassuring and brings a sense of calm, LeCuyer said.

They also offer a fresh perspective to county officials, who are continuing to refine and codify procedures for the new command center.

“The playbook is here now forever,” LeCuyer. “For the next disaster or pandemic, we have the playbook to do this.”

To date, the operation has made over 9,100 deliveries to 7,500 people. 

At present, the county is tracking deliveries by zip code, which can make determining the need in specific neighborhoods an inexact science, LeCuyer said.

But calls across the county spiked after the April 22 food distribution drive-thru at SUNY Schenectady, which provided bags to 667 vehicles.


“People in poverty are struggling,” said William Rivas, a member of the coalition. 

A week later, 414,279 pounds of food from the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York moved through the facility, not including 40,000 pounds allocated for the drive-thru event. 

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The food bank provides nearly 66,000 pounds to the distribution hub per week. Despite the high volume, officials say supplies are not in immediate jeopardy of running out.

“We’re OK,” said Mark Quandt, the food bank’s executive director. “We’re working hard to keep food flowing in, and right now we’re in pretty good shape.”

The county doesn’t keep track of how many people are asking for deliveries for financial reasons as opposed to simply not wanting to leave the house.

But anecdotally, Bradley estimates two-thirds of callers are experiencing economic hardship.

“We just want to provide the resources,” Bradley said.

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