Outlook 2022: At your service: Northern Rivers agencies offer help, hope

Executive Program Director of Early Learning Center Sharon Hutchinson-Jones high-fives with Noel Valerio, 1 from the toddler Lion’s classroom, in the “Big Room” at Early Learning Center in Schenectady
Executive Program Director of Early Learning Center Sharon Hutchinson-Jones high-fives with Noel Valerio, 1 from the toddler Lion’s classroom, in the “Big Room” at Early Learning Center in Schenectady

CAPITAL REGION — When Jennifer Eslick joined the staff at Northern Rivers Family of Services, she sought to decrease the number of behavioral health calls going through 911.

Now four years later, the executive program director of crisis services at Northern Rivers’ office at 530 Franklin St. in Schenectady oversees mobile crisis services for Schenectady, Rensselaer, Albany, Saratoga, Warren and Washington counties.

“We’re trained to know that suicidal thinking is fleeting, so someone might be able to resume day-to-day life without being put through a stressful hospital visit,” Eslick said. “We provide telephonic and on-site services, and perform a safety assessment in order to connect people to treatment and provide case management referrals.”

Eslick added, “Having a service available to provide that support, whether it be talking or going out to see someone, is vital to saving people’s lives.”

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Northern Rivers mobile crisis services were even more imperative.
“We stayed out there during the pandemic because we see ourselves as equal to [emergency] services,” Eslick said. “It was especially important during that time to keep people out of the emergency room.”

In 2020, Northern Rivers mobile crisis services received 3,900 calls, roughly 1,500 more than the previous year.
“The number of calls would’ve been higher if schools weren’t forced to close,” Eslick said of the call volume in 2020.
During 2021, she said, the service received nearly 7,000 calls.

Supporting the community
According to Eslick, Northern Rivers mobile crisis services began responding to behavioral health calls involving children in Schenectady, Rensselaer and Albany counties 15 years ago.

Around 2015, they expanded to Saratoga, Warren and Washington counties. They now serve both children- and adult-related calls in all six counties except for Albany County, as the Albany County Mental Health Crisis Center responds to calls involving adults, Eslick said.

In 2018, Eslick began working with law enforcement by responding to calls involving suicidal individuals and other behavioral health issues.

Before signing a contract with Northern Rivers, the Schenectady Police Department said it didn’t have much to offer those who called due to a mental health crisis.

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“We would ask the person if they wanted to go to the hospital or make them go if we felt they were a harm to themselves or others, which is very cut-and-dried criteria,” said Lt. Ryan Macherone, who works on neighborhood engagement for the Schenectady Police Department. “Now, Northern Rivers fills in that criteria and is able to follow up after the call. It’s a healthier alternative for the individual to have someone come to their house to bee seen.”

From January 2021 to January 2022, Schenectady County received 467 calls for Northern Rivers to come to a scene, as well as 64 calls that were diverted directly to Northern Rivers.

“In a 911 transfer situation, it doesn’t require police to be involved because there’s not a lot for us to do, such as homelessness or substance abuse, because there’s no crime being committed,” Macherone said. “Northern Rivers can respond and put an individual in touch with needed services.”

He said the Schenectady Police Department has built a great relationship with Northern Rivers.

“When we introduced it, it was a new concept and we didn’t know if officers would embrace it, so it’s nice to hear them call for Northern Rivers to come to a scene, especially since they’re in our backyard,” he said. “Officers have become more confident knowing there’s a professional there to help, and the individual is more comfortable knowing they’ll be getting the help they need.”

According to Eslick, it took nearly four months to get the calls diverted to Northern Rivers in Schenectady County, following training for the 911 dispatchers.

“Schenectady County has a central dispatch center, so all police calls are managed through the same system,” she said.
This year, in addition to overseeing two crisis stabilization programs for children ages 5 to 17, Eslick is also working to get 911 calls diverted to them in Rensselaer County.

“Dispatcher training was complete at the end of last year and now we’re working to make sure the police know how to utilize us,” she said. “It helps relieve additional stress on police officers and helps manage the number of behavioral health calls they receive.

“It also builds that extra relationship to behavioral health services, so people know there are agencies to support them.”

Nearly two centuries later
Northern Rivers’ history in the Capital Region dates to 1829 with the founding of the Ladies Orphan Society in Albany, now Parsons Child & Family Center.

The nonprofit organization’s Schenectady history began in 1888 with the Home for Destitute Children, which later became the Northeast Parent and Child Society.

A decade ago, the leadership of Northeast Parent and Child Society and Parsons Child & Family Center came together to form Northern Rivers, which boasts nearly 30 locations in 13 counties and provides services to individuals in 40 counties.

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More than 90% of Northern Rivers’ revenue comes from county, state and federal contracts for its programs and services, including its Early Learning Center.

Located at 125 Bigelow Ave. in Schenectady, the center provides Early Head Start, a federally funded, income- and need-based program that serves children up to age 3. In addition to center and home-based services, they also provide family support, nutrition guidance, medical care and dental care.

“We offer more support than a traditional day care,” said Sharon Hutchinson-Jones, executive program director of the Early Learning Center. “The services we provide are meeting needs of the community, and we’re not only supporting the child but the family as well.”

During the pandemic, Hutchinson-Jones said, many of the center’s families lost access to vital resources.

“Our staff immediately asked how we could support these families and make sure they have access to food and that their daily routines can continue,” she said. “We utilized digital platforms and loaned Chromebooks to families, and also provided meals to make sure families had enough food.”

According to Hutchinson-Jones, implementing technology allowed the Early Learning Center to continue its programs and services.

“By utilizing online platforms we were still able to deliver on-demand services for our families,” she said. “Embracing technology allowed us to stay connected.”

Building stronger connections
Moving forward, Hutchinson-Jones said implementing technology is something that will be a mainstay at the Northern Rivers Early Learning Center.

“Now, if a classroom has to be quarantined [due to a COVID-19 outbreak], we can use digital platforms and we also post messages for our families,” she said. “It’s been so meaningful to us to continue those connections, and we plan to continue to use it in the future because it complements our in-person services.”

Hutchinson-Jones added that the Early Learning Center is constantly looking to improve the quality and number of services.

“We want to learn and grow, and continue to offer opportunities for families to learn and grow with us,” she said. “We want to form even stronger connections with families we serve, because when a family does well a child does well.”

Northern Rivers Family of Services
Type of organization: Nonprofit
Locations: 25
Counties served: More than 40, including Schenectady, Rensselaer, Albany, Saratoga, Warren and Washington
Employees: 1,400
Serving: More than 18,000 children, adults and families
Web: www.northernrivers.org
Phone: 518-426-2600

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