It’s 1 a.m. on a recent weeknight, and Marcia Epstein, executive director of Headquarters Counseling Center, a 24-hour Lawrence crisis counseling center, has her hands full, literally and figuratively.
For the past 45 minutes, she’s been on the phone, talking on and off with a teenage girl concerned about a friend who may have overdosed on a medication.
At the same time, Epstein is helping field other crisis calls, juggling multiple phones.
She’s “prioritizing the calls,” she explains in the seconds when she’s not on the line.
A young man also has been calling on and off for help handling the death of several friends and relatives, but he isn’t suicidal. So Epstein has no choice but to calmly ask him to call back, so she can tend to the possible overdose, which could be a life-threatening situation.
It’s a quick start to the overnight shift, and she has seven hours to go.
Isn’t it a little unusual for the executive director of a nonprofit to be working the overnight shift?
“This is a team place,” Epstein says of the nonprofit she’s headed since 1979.
Even Epstein’s dog leans on her for psychological support. Beau, an English springer spaniel, comes to work with Epstein some days.
“Separation anxiety,” says Epstein, as Beau follows her around the small, quirky office. Stuffed animals, cartoon strips and abstract art line the walls and desks.
Through the years, Headquarters has changed locations, but Epstein has been the constant.
She signed up to volunteer with the nonprofit in 1975 when she was a social welfare student at Kansas University. By 1979, Epstein was the executive director.
She planned to stay two years.
Reflecting on her more than three decades with Headquarters, Epstein says it’s difficult not to weave in her family life with the job. She was able to bring her two sons — now 22 and 27 — to work with her when they were younger.
“They grew up with this,” Epstein said.
There is a life-work separation, Epstein insists, but it’s a fine one.
“She is totally dedicated and has totally immersed herself in the organization,” said retired Lawrence police Capt. Dan Affalter. “Marcia is all about the center.”
Affalter, who is the Headquarters board president, met Epstein when their paths crossed on the job. Epstein would show up to talk to a suicidal patient, or provide follow-up assistance to some of the cases Affalter handled.
Affalter tells one particular story about Epstein that stands out.
Affalter responded to a 2006 house fire on New Jersey Street in which five people, including four children, died. Family members and neighbors crowded around as police and firemen tried to work the fire investigation. Law enforcement had a job to do, but it was difficult with the obvious emotional needs of people at the scene.
“I turn around, and there’s Marcia and her volunteers,” he said.
Years later, Affalter sees Epstein’s dedication continue. He knows about the long hours, and the low pay; something both Epstein and Affalter talk about with a certain pride. Despite the extensive experience, Epstein’s $42,000 salary is one of the lowest among area nonprofit executive directors.
“She’s not doing it for the money,” Affalter says.
‘Worries about possibilities’
Epstein has fielded thousands of crisis calls, and moderated countless grief and other counseling groups over the years. Thousands of stories of sexual abuse, death, pain and healing.
“I absolutely do get affected by what we do,” Epstein says.
“She worries about possibilities,” Affalter said of the crisis calls Epstein and her staff field. Oftentimes, there’s little way to know what type of impact their assistance has made.
Days after fielding the calls about the teenager and the possible overdose, Epstein is pleased to report that everything worked out fine, a rare assurance in her field.
Talking to other social workers and psychologists — who make up most of her circle of friends — and sometimes just getting out for a walk help Epstein clear her mind and distance herself from the traumatic stories she hears day after day.
Between the busy workdays and overnight shifts, there isn’t much downtime. But she and her husband, Kyle Thompson, unwind at Allen Fieldhouse, as basketball season-ticket holders. Her favorite player over the years? Sherron Collins, easily, she says.
“Great team leader,” she says. Although she is not a natural basketball fan, KU sports have slowly worked their way into Epstein’s blood.
“It brings together the community,” she said.
When she first came to KU, Epstein says, she had her own traumatic story to tell. Bouncing around from the Los Angeles area to Texas, and then to Kansas City, as a child, Epstein talks vaguely about an abusive and alcoholic stepfather.
“It made me understand better,” Epstein said about knowing trauma firsthand. “In some ways, our harsh experiences help us.”
Ask Epstein what she enjoys about the work, and she talks about the importance of the service Headquarters provides.
Some people don’t have that friend to listen to, or built-in coping mechanisms to deal with trauma and pain, she said.
“There are times when people need support. Everyone should have access to that,” Epstein said. “People have the right to be listened to.”