Centre County United Way helps support mental health during pandemic

January 18, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Struggling with one’s mental health is a challenging experience. And for many who are facing that struggle, reaching out and asking for help — especially for the first time — is just as great of a challenge. 

“It’s scary, being in a place where you’re reaching out for the first time and you don’t know what to expect,” said Jared Pavlock, a Penn State student and volunteer for local non-profit Centre Helps. “That’s why we’re here, to give people that empathetic ear. It means the world to hear that relief in their voice when they realize there’s somewhere they can go and there are people here for them.” 

Funded in part through the Centre County United Way, Centre Helps operates a 24-hour hotline, reachable at 814-237-5855, that is open for any Centre County community member to call with any struggle they might be facing, including mental health challenges and everything from food and housing insecurity to financial or medical issues. Trained hotline volunteers like Pavlock work with each person who calls to determine their individual needs and connect them to resources that can help them grow and thrive — including fellow United Way partner agencies like Strawberry Fields, which provides a wide range of mental health services. 

Centre Helps volunteer Theresa Hencinski helps answer calls to the Centre Helps hotline.

Centre Helps volunteer Theresa Hencinski helps answer calls to the Centre Helps hotline. All volunteers receive comprehensive training to help assist callers with a wide range of potential concerns, and are available 24/7 to connect callers with United Way partner agencies that can help support and empower them.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

Supporting, educating and empowering

“Our services are 24/7 and we serve roughly 200 people each month, including individuals from 4-year-olds up through nursing home age,” said Michelle Melius, director of Strawberry Fields’ mental health case management program. “The mental health system can be challenging to understand and access, so it’s our job to help families and adults understand their options and help them navigate the system, while also educating them and empowering them to be able to do so themselves.”

Each year, one in three Centre County residents access the services provided by the Centre County United Way’s network of partner agencies, including Centre Helps and Strawberry Fields — services and agencies that are supported by the Penn State United Way Campaign. Donations from the Penn State community make up approximately 40% of the total dollars raised for the Centre County United Way each year, representing Penn State’s commitment to community impact as a 21st century land-grant institution. Members of the University community are encouraged to visit UnitedWay.psu.edu to learn more, and to consider supporting the Centre County United Way through a monthly payroll deduction.

Since the start of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Melius said that Strawberry Fields has seen an increase in children who need additional services while also navigating the challenges of providing attentive, personalized case management to every client while maintaining safe social distancing guidelines. Despite these challenges, Melius and her colleagues remain dedicated to their goal of helping community members in need while empowering them with the knowledge and skills to successfully navigate the mental health system and work to take their self-care into their own hands.

Michelle Melius, director of Strawberry Fields’ mental health case management program

Michelle Melius, director of Strawberry Fields’ mental health case management program, and her colleagues at Strawberry Fields have learned to adapt and pivot in order to continue providing high-quality, personalized mental health services and support during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

“One thing we had to learn was to be very flexible,” said Fran McDermid, director of program operations at Strawberry Fields. She said some of the ways staff have adjusted to current circumstances include shorter but more frequent telephone check-ins with clients instead of lengthy in-person meetings, advocating with insurance companies, and utilizing telehealth and telemedicine technologies — which has made a world of difference for clients with anxiety or mobility issues. 

“Our staff has learned to turn and pivot, so that we can continue helping people,” McDermid said. 

“You’re not alone.”

George McMurtry is a State College resident and local business owner whose relationship with Strawberry Fields is multi-layered. Not only does he sit on the organization’s board of directors, he’s seen the powerful impact of their services in his own life and his own family. 

“I have a daughter who has special needs, and she has been in the Strawberry Fields case management  program for several years as they’ve helped us navigate the world of mental health,” McMurtry said. 

McMurtry said his daughter has both a mental health and an intellectual disability diagnosis, and that Strawberry Fields’ case manager has been an indispensable resource for his family. “Trying to imagine being a parent in my particular case, navigating this world without some help to move us in the right direction — it’s incredibly daunting. What Strawberry Fields does is say: ‘You’re not alone.’”  

He said he feels lucky to be a part of the State College and Centre County community, both because of the available resources that have helped his family, and the community support that helps make those resources possible. 

“Because of the generosity of our community and giving to the United Way and its partner agencies, our area is able to be at the forefront of communities of our size to have the variety of services and breadth of programs that exist here — and every single one of them is important and needed,” McMurtry said, encouraging anyone who might need help to reach out to the rich network of services available to support them. 

“Even in these difficult times, it can still feel hard to reach out,” Pavlock said, reminding all community members that the Centre Helps hotline is always staffed and available. “If anyone is thinking about asking for help, it’s OK. There’s no shame in it. This is a difficult time for everyone, in every corner of life, but taking those first steps and reaching out can go miles for your mental health. We are here for you.” 

Learn more about how you can support the Centre County United Way at UnitedWay.psu.edu. Penn State employees are asked to consider supporting the United Way through a gift, no matter the size, using the University’s online payroll deduction donation form.


Last Updated January 18, 2021