The longtime director of Headquarters Counseling has left as the organization is struggling with major funding cuts and a temporary reduction in the hours of its suicide prevention hotline.
The president of the board of Headquarters confirmed Friday that Marcia Epstein, the nonprofit's executive director since 1979, has departed the organization, effective immediately.
Board President David Moore said he could not provide more details of the personnel matter, but he did confirm that the organization has seen its funding decline by about 50 percent since 2011. He also confirmed that over the past couple of years the organization has been in talks with various other local social service agencies, such as the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center and Health Care Access, about merging Headquarters' operations into their organizations.
Moore said there are no immediate plans for Headquarters — which operates the hotline and provides counseling and bereavement services — to merge with another provider, but he did not rule out the possibility in the future.
"The priority is to keep Headquarters operating as a separate entity as it is now, but we need to do a complete overhaul and evaluation of our operations," Moore said.
When reached Friday afternoon, Epstein said she did not want to get into the details of her departure.
"I'm really proud of the many ways I have helped with people in need, and very proud of the volunteers and counselors who do amazing work there everyday," Epstein said. "I love that organization."
The decline in funding for the organization is causing an immediate cut back in hours of Headquarters' suicide prevention line. Moore said the once-24-hour line will be staffed only from 8 a.m. to midnight. During the midnight to 8 a.m. hours, people in need will be instructed to call the National Suicide Prevention Line at 800-273-TALK. Moore said he hoped the reduction would be temporary, but he did not have a timeline for when 24-hour local service may resume.
Moore said the headquarters now has just one full-time employee and one part-time employee, which is down from four full-time employees a year ago. The organization also relies on trained volunteers, but he said overhead and other expenses have made it difficult for the organization.
"It is kind of bare bones and operating on a shoe string at the moment," Moore said.
The organization has received funding cuts from the city, from the United Way and from Kansas University in recent years. Its budget now stands at about $120,000, down from about $240,000 in 2011.
Challenges for the organization started to emerge more than two years ago, said Steve Maceli, a former board member who left the board about a year ago. Maceli said he was part of a group that lobbied for Headquarters to consider affiliating with either Health Care Access or the Bert Nash Center. But he said board members and Epstein were at an impasse on the correct direction for Headquarters.
Maceli said he and other board members resigned after they reached an impasse with Epstein on the future of the organization.
"About three years ago the board recognized that Headquarters was not on a sustainable path," Maceli said. "We sought a long term solution to ensure a strong future for our mission. Our mission is what is really important. That is what has to be preserved."
Headquarters has fielded about 26,000 calls over the last 12 months, Moore said. About 60 percent of them were calls of five minutes or more, indicating they were callers in significant need. The organization also sponsors survivors groups.
"We're very optimistic that we can continue to keep Headquarters open, and we're doing everything we can to remain viable," said Moore, who lost a son to suicide two years ago. "It is organizations like this that makes Lawrence so unique. I think folks would really miss having us."
Although Moore said he couldn't go into details of Epstein's departure, he did praise her work at the center, where she began as a volunteer in 1975 and took over as director in 1979.
"We thank her for her years of service," Moore said. "She has helped thousands of people in crisis in her 34 years answering the phones, training new volunteers and leading our bereavement groups."
Moore said the Headquarters board hopes to have an interim director in place within the next couple of weeks. A search for a permanent director will begin soon, he said.