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How the Catholic Charities of New York Helpline Became a Lifeline


Catholic Charities volunteers provided our neighbors with over 1 million meals throughout 2020  // Carmen Gonzalez

By Jim Sliney Jr. 

In 2019, Catholic Charities of New York received over 15,500 calls to their Helpline. In 2020, that number increased to over 27,000 calls. That is a 74% increase in the volume of calls in just one year and this is no surprise. The impact of Covid-19 in New York State put pressure on systems of support and social service resources. Just one example of that change-up is how individuals experiencing food insecurity could no longer walk through a brick-and-mortar food pantry because of the pandemic or safely navigate the community around them. 

That meant new food distribution models, featuring grab and go bags and homebound food delivery programs, needed to be developed by Catholic Charities. Remember, stores in the City were often bare, lines sometimes hours long, and many restaurants were shuttered. And that’s not to mention that the elderly and immunocompromised, faced even more difficult challenges.

People like these were just a fraction of the individuals calling the Catholic Charities of New York Helpline. During a 6-month period of the pandemic, Catholic Charities provided over 1 million meals to hungry New Yorkers, representing a 250% increase over the same period in 2019.

Handling this near-doubling of volume of calls meant Catholic Charities had to do something it has proven to be very good at - changing with the need. Staff were pulled from other social service areas to answer calls for assistance on the Helpline. The dedicated staff nearly doubled. 

Those exceptional people, in concert with the many agencies and services of Catholic Charities, turned a period of unprecedented need, into a period of unprecedented service coordination. All the while, when people called for help, they called that one toll free telephone line from Manhattan, The Bronx and Staten Island plus Duchess, Orange, Putnam, Sullivan, Ulster and Westchester counties north of the City. And that’s not to mention calls from the other boroughs.

Debra Presti-Eschen, Catholic Charities’ Director of Case Management understands the challenge best. “We’re not perfect,” she admits, “and the enormity of the need, the limited resources” she explained, meant not every problem was solved right away, with some requiring follow-up communication. “But I know for sure,” she added, “these staff are really attentive, they seek to learn what they do not know. Their level of care is exemplary. We are very proud of them.”

How does the Helpline work?

When a person calls the Catholic Charities of New York toll free Helpline (888-744-7900) during its operating hours (Monday through Friday from 8:30am to 5:30pm) they will speak to live Helpline staff. If a call is made outside those hours, callers may leave a message and receive a return call from live staff the following business day. The Helpline functions equally well in English and Spanish.

The people staffing the phones at the Helpline are trained and educated in case management. This means staff have at least a bachelor’s degrees and experience in the social service sector. The experience part is especially important, because a call can’t afford to go wrong - the one time a client calls might be the only time.

Staff therefore know how important it is to walk callers through their needs and the resources Catholic Charities and its partners can provide. Many Helpline interactions are from people at the most vulnerable moment of their lives. To give that perspective, remember that Catholic Charities has 5 primary focus areas and 90 agencies with support programs and services:

  • Children and Youth
  • Food and Shelter
  • Families and Crises
  • Emotional and Physical Challenges
  • Immigration and Refugees

It’s not hard to imagine the kinds of problems people experience within those areas. All of this is to say that the Helpline is staffed by a rare kind of person who balances good listening skills with compassion, inquisitiveness, knowledge and fortitude.

If you find yourself in need and don’t know where to start, call the Catholic Charities of New York toll free Helpline at 888-744-7900. You’ll speak to a person who knows how to help.