2017-12-01 / Up Close

Answering the Call

Centre Helps’ Bonnie Tatterson has been helping people her whole life, and she won’t stop when she retires at the end of the year.
Jennifer Fabiano

Centre Helps, Centre County’s crisis and emotional support call center, took 10,000 calls in 2016. But for her whole life, executive director Bonnie Tatterson has been answering her own call — to help others in whatever way she could.

Raised in the 1960s by an activist mother, Tatterson says her desire to contribute to society was subtly cultivated throughout her upbringing. “It just seemed like there was something in the area of helping that I wanted to do,” she says. “I really couldn’t see myself anywhere else.”

Tatterson says there was a very limited, safe list of paths that women could pursue when she was entering adulthood. At the top of that list was finding a husband — which wasn’t her first priority. “A lot of my self-worth came from finding that there were ways that I could improve things just through my effort and my heart,” Tatterson says. “That really helped to shape me as an individual — that I could get out there and, even if it was a small thing, it was important to be doing it.”

As a result of her drive to help, Tatterson studied social work at Temple University. Originally from West Virginia, much of her early experience was in the very impoverished, rural parts of the Mountain State. Tatterson’s first job was at a runaway and homeless shelter, where she did direct service with children ages 11 to 17, and even lived in the shelter with them. “That was my trial by fire,” she says.

The community here is so incredibly collaborative and generous to each other.”

“That’s where I really learned what it was to be from not only an economically distressed environment, but from one where the family didn’t have the emotional equipment to look after their children.”

Eventually Tatterson moved to an administrator role at the shelter, then worked at another nonprofit where she helped women in rural West Virginia with entrepreneurial development.

Tatterson brought her efforts to the Centre County area in 1997 when her late husband decided to pursue his doctorate at Penn State. She first worked in women’s reproductive health at a nonprofit and then worked at The Music Academy, a nonprofit community music school, for about 10 years.

After working in impoverished West Virginia for so long, Tatterson says Centre County was like a breath of fresh air. “The community here is so incredibly collaborative and generous to each other,” she says.

In 2010, Tatterson took the position of executive director at Centre Helps, then called Community Help Centre. She remembers getting the call for an interview and preparing a PowerPoint presentation. “It was the board, and almost all the staff, and some of the volunteers, and it was slightly hair-raising,” Tatterson says. “I really liked what I heard and I think they liked what they heard.”

Tatterson was impressed with the staff-run model of the organization, which is largely what drew her to Centre Helps. “All the staff is involved in decision-making — from policy changing, hiring, to firing. So instead of being top down, we’re bottom up.”

As executive director, Tatterson doesn’t call the shots, but oversees the many programs and collaborations that the organization offers. “We see ourselves as the hub of social services, and the director is the person who is out there being the center of that wheel,” she says. Even the volunteers, of which there are 30-50, have a voice in making decisions, and that’s a policy that Tatterson still fully embraces today. “I never wanted to be the czar or the queen, that was never anything that interested me much,” she says. “That’s a lonely, lonely place in my view.”

And Tatterson is all about making others’ lives less lonely too. “People call us when they’re feeling stressed or sad or even desperate and we will try to help them,” she says. In addition to emotional support, the organization also helps with a plethora of practical matters, including financial issues, social security, health care and substance abuse prevention. Tatterson describes the organization as the square one contact point for anyone who feels lost when it comes to tackling an issue in their life. “We have a database of over 400 Centre County programs and services, so we can help people with those early stages of navigating those services that are out there,” she says.

A lot of my self-worth came from finding that there were ways that I could improve things just through my effort and my heart.”

The self-described planner has not been able to plan much for what she will do when she retires at the end of this month and Leanne Lenz takes over as executive director. She has been focused on the rebranding process that renamed the organization, and on continuing to improve its services — Centre Helps recently added texting as an additional way for community members to reach out.

Tatterson will continue to garden and plans to do some traveling as well. And she still wants to work, probably part time. “I can’t imagine that I won’t stay active … I’m kind of hyper that way,” she says. And even with her retirement approaching, she still feels young inside.

“My girlfriends will say, ‘I’m marching towards 70,’ but it’s just a number,” she says. “I just want to hang on to my health and try to be young at heart.” •SCM

Centre Helps by the Numbers (2016)

805 individuals referred to State College Food Bank

137 emergency food bags provided

10,700 callers and walk-in clients served by volunteers and staff

454 students completed Youthful Offender Program classes in 2015–2016

387 people served by Basic Needs Case Management

180 hours each volunteer trains

430 minimum hours of service for each volunteer

Centre Helps’ Hotline

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