Forgive Jessica Pirro the fact that she hasn’t decorated her office walls since Crisis Services made a big move last November from North Buffalo into more spacious surroundings in Riverside.
Like many her agency serves, the chief executive officer had a challenging 2017.
Pirro needed to lean on others during the move while she battled triple negative breast cancer, Grade 3, the most aggressive grade.
“The team here was outstanding through it all because I had to have surgery, chemo, radiation,” she said. “These guys didn’t miss a beat and it’s all I could wish for. What we do best is work through things, problem solve and figure things out. That was the approach we took last year, with everyone stepping up when I was out.”
Her staff of about 95 made big contributions while she kept track through much of the first half of last year from her computer at home. The formerly longhaired CEO was happy to show off her new work digs earlier this month, a few days after she shed her wig to reveal a shorter hairdo.
The new office in the Buffalo Free Trade Complex, at 100 River Rock Drive, stands at more than 15,000 square feet – twice the size of the former Crisis Services headquarters – with plenty of room for the array of services and supportive hotlines the staff operates.
Pirro, 46, is a Syracuse native with a bachelor’s in child and family studies and a master’s in social work, both from Syracuse University. Her father, Nicholas J. Pirro, served as Onondaga County executive from 1988 through 2007.
She moved to Buffalo 20 years ago and lives in the Parkside neighborhood with her husband, David Mann, a city police lieutenant. She has a stepson, Sean Mann, a junior at Case Western University in Cleveland.
She has worked with Crisis Services for 19 years, starting as a supervising counselor of the organization's Services Advocate Program, which handles the Erie County Rape Crisis Center, and family, domestic violence and elder abuse services. She also served as coordinator of that program, and chief operating officer for about eight years before becoming CEO about three years ago.
Pirro always has found great meaning and purpose in her field but has formed a greater appreciation of her work since her diagnosis on Jan. 30, 2017.
Q: How did your job instruct how you approached your cancer diagnosis and treatment?
For me, what was a grounding point was that I'm allowed to have my moments, and I'm allowed to feel what I need to feel, but I also know I'm fortunate to be where I'm at with this diagnosis and situation. … If the cancer had been discovered even a couple of months later, it could have been much worse.
It’s putting into perspective that things happen, crisis happens, bad things happen. How you manage it, how you tackle it, how you approach it matters – and having the supports around you is so important. I so value this organization but it was another reaffirming moment that I’m fortunate for the people I have around me. Not everybody has that. Our staff members sometimes become the people who step in, hold someone’s hand and guide them through a crisis.
Q: What does Crisis Services do?
It’s a 24-hour crisis center for our community. A lot of people know us for our hotline services. That’s the gateway into the organization to get help and support. We’re in our 50th anniversary this year. When the agency started back in 1968, it was strictly a suicide prevention hotline. A lot of calls we manage are coming in around suicide, suicide prevention or other mental health support. If there is a high rate of concern about suicide or a mental health emergency, that call will get connected to our Mobile Outreach Team, which has staff that does mental health assessments in the community. Those 25 staff members are responding 24/7 and going out trying to de-escalate the situation, maybe relink someone with supports and services, with the ultimate goal of preventing hospitalization.
We also manage other specialty areas: rape crisis calls, domestic violence, elder abuse and general calls for support. Maybe someone is having some anxiety, or just found out there was a death in the family, and needing to talk through those types of situations.
Q: How many people did you serve last year?
We provided service to 98,834. This includes our various hotlines and crisis response services.
Q: How long might a single call last?
It could be a 5- to 7-minute call but if it's a more supportive call, probably 15 or 20 minutes. Some suicide calls can last up to an hour, depending on what's going on for that person. We'll try to engage them, and maybe dispatch emergency services.
Q: How have things changed since you started with Crisis Services 19 years ago?
Heroin, opioids and substance abuse in general has grown worse. We've also talked recently about the greater complexities of the clients we're serving. They're not just coming in with mental health challenges or just because of domestic violence. They're coming in with that as an entry point, but as we start to assess and get more involved with a client, we're seeing they have a drug addiction or that basic needs are not being met that allow them to live and survive every day. We're having to be more holistic in looking at how best to wrap them in the services they need.
Q: Talk about your duties.
A little bit of everything. What's been interesting for me with the move has been a lot of settling in, making sure all our technology and systems are completely in place to operate. My day can consist of anything from dealing with funders and managing contracts to a community meeting or coalition effort to a case consult on a challenging situation. … We are involved in a lot of community work. We manage the Suicide Prevention Coalition for Erie County. We're also one of the founding partners of the Anti-Stigma Coalition, which is dealing with stigma around mental health. … Part of being the CEO is having to ask for money, and I'm getting good, and comfortable, doing that.
Q: What is the most challenging part of the job?
Because of the nature of the service we provide – being really fast-paced, with high-risks situations – it's keeping on top of everything on a daily basis. It is a 24-hour job. The challenge is managing the time. I have this mantra about trying to move from crisis management to managing a crisis center. That's hard because you're having to respond to some of the most difficult situations. As head of the agency, you get pulled in on those sometimes, because of the risk involved. ... It comes down to making sure our clients' needs are served.
When I leave at the end of the day, I'm worried. Is there going to be a problem in the building? An issue with the phone system? Is my staff out in the community at 10 or 11 at night safe? Those are the things that can sometimes keep me up at night.
Q: Talk about "The Journey - Stories of Crisis and Hope" that you host on demand at crisisservices.org.
A few years back, I was contacted by Voice of America. They were doing some research and had come across some of the things I've done, and were intrigued with the agency and some of the work we did. We started this live radio show and podcasts. I did 26 shows and tailored each show to talk about the work of crisis centers. Sometimes, people don't realize this work is what helps keep our communities safe and healthy, and sometimes prevent the tragedies we see in other communities. We talked about suicide, human trafficking, sexual assault. I had the opportunity to engage with a couple of national figures as well. It allowed me to highlight the kind of work crisis centers do every day and also tell the story of crisis services. It was a neat experience.
Q: How do you and the staff work in what can become a high-stress atmosphere? How do you not take a job like this home?
We have to strike a balance with this work. One of the things we value here is that we provide regular supervision to staff and opportunities for debriefing. All of our employees have dedicated time with their supervisors on a regular basis ... to talk about how things are going, cases they're dealing with, working on their professional and personal development, maybe some difficult experiences that they've had, maybe traumatic experiences.
Part of service our advocates provide is going out to the hospitals as part of 24-hour response for victims of domestic violence or sexual assault. You're seeing people who've been beaten, who've just been traumatized. The staff needs outlets to talk about that and can't go home and talk with their friends and families for confidentiality reasons. The team environment we have here has to be supportive so we can process some of the things we're hearing and being exposed to on a daily basis.
Q: In a medical setting, a health setting, you can get used to saving somebody. That's what the majority of calls are like. You're making a positive impact.
It's remembering that. There's hundreds of people we help every day and there are (mostly) good outcomes but there are going to be challenging outcomes. We just have to know we did the best we could in that moment. … All the good we do in the community, the support we provide, helps guide us through those situations.
CRISIS SERVICES HOTLINES
Crisis Services staff handles the following 24-hour hotlines.
Crisis and Suicide Prevention Hotline Serving Buffalo and Erie County: 716-834-3131
Addiction Hotline Serving Buffalo and Erie County: 716-831-7007
Kids' Helpline: 716-834-1144; 877-KIDS-400
Chautauqua County Crisis Hotline: 800-724-0461
Erie County Domestic Violence Hotline: 716-862-HELP (4357); for shelter, 716-884-6000
NYS Domestic & Sexual Violence Hotline: 800-942-6906
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)