On the front desk of Gryphon Place is a statue of a griffin the size of a small house cat. In mythology, a griffin is a formidable beast with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle that symbolizes strength and valor and has been said to be a guardian of secretly buried wealth.
It’s an appropriate mascot for this Kalamazoo County nonprofit, which is tucked quietly off of Stadium Drive, at 3245 S. 8th St. Inside the unassuming building is an organization with a big mission: connecting people and organizations to resolve conflict and crisis, foster volunteerism, and meet community needs.
One way Gryphon Place does those things is through its 211 and 381-HELP call center. In addition, it offers mediation for middle and high school students struggling with bullying and interpersonal conflicts; educates middle and high school students on mental illness and suicide, teaching them warning signs and positive coping skills so they can help themselves and their peers; and provides mediation for family and neighborhood disputes, landlord/tenant disputes and more. And since August 2016, Gryphon Place has been the volunteer center for Kalamazoo, helping would-be volunteers connect with nonprofits in the area.
Buried wealth, indeed.
On the line
Gryphon Place was born out of a drug overdose information line that was created in 1971. The following year the organization added its 211 and 381-HELP lines, and by 1973 the HELP line was operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Now the 211 and 381-HELP call center operates all day and night 365 days a year. In Michigan, there are six regional 211 call centers that help connect people with information about the services in their cities and counties. But Gryphon Place is unique in that it also houses the 381-HELP suicide prevention and mental health line; no other 211 center in Michigan does that, according to Maricela Alcala, CEO of Gryphon Place since 2014.
Gryphon Place’s work extends beyond Kalamazoo County too. Its crisis hotline serves eight other counties 24 hours, seven days a week, and it takes after-business-hours calls from 22 additional counties. Most often these calls regard mental health issues, suicide and substance abuse.
At Gryphon Place, an expertly trained army of about 50 staff members and anywhere from 30 to 40 volunteers offers a kind voice, an open ear, and information about services available.
But first they need to hear your story. Before they address any caller’s crisis, they simply listen, says Kristen Smith, Gryphon Place’s director of clinical operations.
“The biggest part of training people to be on the crisis line is preparing people to hold space for someone’s story,” Smith says. “It’s really powerful and impactful to be able to share your story. We’re not providing counsel or advice. We’re just listening.”
Then, with Gryphon Place’s connections to more than 600 regional agencies and thousands of programs, the call center workers use the plethora of knowledge and relevant information at their disposal to make referrals for additional help.
“The volunteers that are drawn to us are helpers,” Smith says. “They want to fix and solve and help because they can. But, you know, people have to help themselves too.”
Gryphon Place’s two areas of expertise — helping people in crisis and connecting people to services — are necessarily intertwined, especially when it comes to suicide prevention.
A 2018 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study on U.S. suicide rates found that 54 percent of suicide cases were “related to relationships, substance use, physical health, and job, money, legal or housing stress” — issues not unlike those that Gryphon Place attempts to alleviate by connecting callers to other agencies that can help.
But Gryphon Place itself offers additional helping services when it comes to suicide prevention. “Very few communities have similar models (to Gryphon Place’s),“ says Alcala, “where community organizations and partners have come together and are creating a community-wide suicide prevention plan.”
That plan includes prevention of suicide among young people. Alcala explains that Gryphon Place is one of only a few programs in the nation that provides a higher level of suicide prevention in middle and high schools.
In 2016, suicide was the second most frequent cause of death for Americans ages 10 to 34, claiming more than 13,500 lives in that age range alone, according to data from the National Vital Statistics System, National Center for Health Statistics and the CDC.
To combat the issue, Gryphon Place’s Gatekeeper Program is woven into health class curriculums in the Kalamazoo area, providing three days of instruction in middle school and four days in high school. A Gatekeeper thoroughly trained by Gryphon Place spends those days in classrooms discussing mental health and suicide prevention with students.
“I think for every program that we have here, safety for whoever is utilizing our service is always No. 1,” Smith says. “When you talk about suicide, you have to be thoughtful.”
So the presenters — volunteers who are engaging speakers and have completed 30 hours of training — begin by talking about mental illness and what it looks like in the students themselves and in their peers. Through interactive games and role playing, Gatekeepers teach students positive coping skills for facing mental illness before addressing the topic of suicide.
“Suicide doesn’t just happen overnight; it’s a buildup of things,” Smith says.
Gatekeepers teach the students to assess themselves with questions like: Who are my trusted adults? What resources do I have? How can I help my friends and how can I help myself?
“Suicide is everybody’s business,” Alcala says.
When asked to describe a situation that made an impression on her, Alcala recalls a student who had been in mediations with Gryphon mediators without much success.
“This time,” she says, “he was very open and very expressive. Our staff asked him, ‘What was different? You were so open. I’m so proud of you. You did so good.’”
The student had gone through the Gatekeeper Program in his health class, where the speaker emphasized how crucial it is to be open and positively express feelings when struggling with depression.
Benefits of two call lines
As far as Gryphon Place’s call center, Alcala says having a 211 line and a crisis call center in the same building allows for a better experience for both people on the line. When Alcala worked with United Way’s 211 line in Toledo, she says, her staff “received a significant number of suicidal calls,” despite the fact that the 211 line was not a crisis line.
“My staff would not enjoy them,” she says, “because they were not equipped as a crisis line center was equipped. They were always in fear, right? Because you never know what’s going to happen.”
Alcala and her staff would find that when someone would call, the person would “hear the friendly voice and somebody’s helping them. (Then when) they’re suicidal, that’s who they want to talk to. They would call us back.”
Because of that experience, coming to work at Gryphon Place just made sense to Alcala. In fact, it was a dream of hers, she says.
“That’s what really drew me (to Gryphon Place),” she says. “And also the potential I saw. I saw the level of commitment the community has, not only to Gryphon Place but to the community impact work as a whole.”