FirstLink provides resources for those in need
The various services offered by FirstLink branch out like a tree. There is never a dull moment for the 10 full-time and 10 part-time employees, and there are no two days that are the same. It can be hard to describe the organization to someone unfamiliar with it, but the name FirstLink really says it all.
“Our mission is to link people with resources, 24 hours a day,” says Executive Director Cindy Miller. As simple as the mission sounds, it’s a huge undertaking.
FirstLink operates the suicide helpline, 1.800.273.8255 (TALK), for North Dakota and Clay County, Minn., part of a national network of suicide helpline call centers. All calls to the helpline from 701 or 218 area codes are received by FirstLink’s call specialists, who work to ensure callers get the help and attention they may need. This can involve a wide variety of things, from helping a caller to find community resources, contacting emergency dispatch, and sometimes even just listening.
“It’s amazing how often people will de-escalate and feel better when they have been able to tell their story and share things with people,” says Miller.
Suicide awareness and education is a large priority for FirstLink staff, as well. In varying degrees, the half-day safeTALK, eight-hour Mental Health First Aid, and two-day Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training courses all work to dispel myths, identify indicators, and better prepare attendees to recognize and help someone at risk of suicide. In 2016, FirstLink had more than 5,000 participants in training sessions. As the awareness level has risen and stigma has begun to be reduced, participation numbers have grown, an excellent sign of the community embracing the need to help others.
FirstLink has partnered with hospitals and in-patient psychiatric facilities across North Dakota for the Suicide Follow Up Program. Through the program, individuals who have attempted suicide or who have had suicidal ideation are contacted within 24 hours of leaving the facility. The calls empower and motivate individuals to use resources available to them and to let them know that FirstLink is there for them at any time. Subsequent calls may be made, sometimes for several months, to ensure the individual is doing well. Additionally, Caring Cards are sent to the individual’s home with a message of hope and support from FirstLink.
FirstLink also handles calls to 211 for North Dakota and Clay County. 211 is the national helpline for resource assistance, helping to provide information to callers about local assistance for housing, utilities, crises, food, health, and much more. Incoming calls are placed into one of four categories: listening and support, information, crisis intervention, and referral. The categories are used primarily for internal purposes, as any need for the caller may prove crucial.
“For us, maybe it’s just a resource call,” says Jennifer Illich, director of helpline operations. “But for the person on the other line, it’s really a crisis.”
FirstLink’s call specialists handled 50,000 calls in 2016, connecting people with vital resources 18,000 times — incredible numbers considering the organization’s size. The credit goes to the dedicated staff.
“Our employees definitely have a love for the mission and vision that we have and they really care about people in the community,” says Miller.
In addition to staffing resource helplines 24/7, FirstLink also serves as a hub for volunteering — both for organizations seeking volunteers and for people looking to volunteer their time. FirstLink currently partners with Impact Foundation to help match general needs with volunteers, and also provides volunteer coordination services for disaster situations in the Fargo-Moorhead area. As an organization, FirstLink has become a veteran of flood defense efforts.
During flood situations, FirstLink employees help coordinate volunteer efforts by fielding calls and providing employees to help coordinate volunteers at transportation and sandbagging stations. Though they’ve gained plenty of first-hand experience with flood situations, FirstLink is involved in regular tabletop exercises with city emergency management officials to remain prepared for any disaster.
On top of all this, FirstLink also runs the annual Giving Tree of Hope, collecting gifts for disadvantaged children and adults with special needs who would not otherwise receive gifts during the holiday season. This multifaceted organization has become a staple of the community and the state as a whole. With all of the support FirstLink provides, there is no shortage of support being returned. Be it through volunteers, donations, gifts for the Giving Tree of Hope, and more.
“We are so blessed to have a community that cares,” Miller says.