Janet Kittams-Lalley has been working with the Helpline Center for almost 20 years. In the beginning, she served in a variety of roles, then left after 14 years to work as a behavioral therapist and then at the Compass Center. But her heart has always been with the Helpline organization, and so five years ago, she came back. She’s been the executive director ever since. Janet is warm and compassionate beyond measure, and the Helpline is an incredibly diverse organization for Sioux Falls that serves as a resource for “simple answers or serious help.”
The Helpline also was one of 30 organizations to receive the 2015 Bush Foundation Community Innovation grant, which will help to build a more coordinated social services system in Sioux Falls. Meet Janet:
Name: Janet Kittams-Lalley
How can people connect with you?
Facebook (business): facebook.com/HelplineCenter
Where do you live now? Where do you call home?
Give us a behind-the-scenes look at your average day.
I’m an early riser. I feel energized in the morning, I always eat breakfast. It’s been engrained in me since I was a kid. So I have to eat breakfast and read the paper.
I’m one of the first ones to get here who hasn’t been (at the Helpline) overnight (the call center is 24 hours), and then I dig in. I set priorities and what needs to be accomplished. Some days are pretty busy, like they have been lately, where I have to schedule each hour of the day with meetings or calls or reports that need to get done.
Lunch varies. If it’s a nice day, I love to go on a walk. I’m here later in the day … I don’t want to say how late sometimes, but if there’s something pressing, you have to take care of it. That’s the business.
When I get home, it’s free time. Last night, I texted (my husband) Patrick and said, “When are you getting off work? It’s really nice, let’s go on a bike ride.” So then we did what he calls the “West Side Dinner Ride,” and we rode the tandem. We ride for an hour and a half, then go eat dinner — and the rule is we have to eat dinner someplace outside.
When it works, that’s perfect. But if he has stuff going on, I’ll go on a walk or do gardening.
What projects are you currently working on, both in your career as well as hobbies or passions?
Since we were just awarded the Bush Foundation Community Innovation grant this past month, one of the biggest projects at the Helpline right now is pulling together a planning committee and looking over that. Our next step will be to hire someone to facilitate our collaborative discussion. The whole goal is to create a more coordinated social service system for Sioux Falls.
I don’t know what that is all going to look like, because the collaborative is obviously going to have input and design that. But we envision that it will involve some type of technology that will allow the agencies to more efficiently communicate with each other, and it will also be less difficult for people to get the help they need. We’ll see what the collaborative comes up with.
They will be meeting in the fall, then we’ll work on a pilot project sometime next year. We hope to learn from that and do the second phase, which will be an even larger project.
Another project we’ve been working on this past year is that we’ve partnered with the Department of Social Services. They had received a large grant for suicide prevention, so with that, we do follow-up phone calls with folks who’ve been discharged from the impatient behavioral health unit — if they were admitted and had suicidal thoughts or ideations or attempts, when they’re discharged, they’re at really high risk for increased suicidal thoughts. So we call them within 24 hours if they agree to sign up for our follow-up program, and then we call them for the next four weeks and just offer support, get them connected to their outpatient resources, answer questions about medications, really be a sounding board and help them solve problems if there’s obstacles they’re experiencing once their out of the outpatient environment.
What challenge in your life or work are you most interested in overcoming?
At the Helpline Center right now, we’re in an exciting time. We’re growing. We have new projects starting, and were reaching more people. But hiring and maintaining the best staff possible is a challenge. I know that’s something a lot of businesses are experiencing right now — when you have a job opening, you don’t get as many applicants as you used to. I think that’s the part I find the most challenging. We have all this exciting work we want to do to help people, and you can’t find the right fit for the staff person to help you do that.
My second challenge is finding enough time to do everything. That’s what’s unique about the Helpline Center. We’re kind of central that we connect to a lot of agencies and a lot of programs that there is so much we could partner with other agencies on, but I can only spread my staff and myself so thin.
If you could do any job, what would you do and why?
First of all, I love ice cream. When the B&G opens, it’s like, woo hoo! So the one job I’ve always said I wanted to do and I never have would be to open an ice cream shop. Sometime down the road, that might be fun.
What’s your desert island album/book/TV show/movie (answer one or all)?:
My movie would be “Love Actually.” I drag it out every Christmas. My TV show, that ebbs and flows, but the whole series I recently finished was “Gilmore Girls.” I was addicted to that, I had to see how it ended!
Since you live in one of the OTA states:
• Why do you choose to live here? I end up driving across South Dakota a lot when I’m visiting other communities, and there’s something so inspiring and relaxing to know that I can jump in my car and just go a little ways, and it is wide open space. Maybe I don’t want to live in the wide open space, but I can get there, and I can enjoy it.
• What is the most beneficial aspect of living in the region when it comes to your career? From the social service perspective, it’s been a wonderful opportunity. During my career, Sioux Falls has grown so much that I’ve been able to participate in helping the social services grow with the community and have had the opportunity to learn from other larger cities and apply those principles here.
• What’s one thing most people don’t know about the OTA region? People from outside this area have the misperception that the people here are not as advanced — that were unsophisticated because we come from a rural region — and that’s just not true at all. We have brilliant people who live here who are very savvy in all their areas of expertise.
Where do you think good ideas come from?
There something to be said for collaboration and bouncing ideas off of one another. When I have an issue I’m trying to resolve at work, I’ll ponder on it a lot, but even just reaching out to other people and running it by them, it’s like, Oh! I never thought about it that way! That might not be exactly the direction I go, but it helps me craft my solution just a little bit better by getting other people’s input.
What advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?
Try new things. When you’re 18, you get so scared, but it’s OK to take a risk!
Who is the most creative person in your life, and why?
My husband thinks it’s him! And it probably is. He thinks very differently than I do, but I think that’s nice in the sense of ying and yang, that I see things more concretely, and he’s more free flowing. We’re a nice mix there.
Who is the most connected person in your life, and what personal characteristics make him or her so well-connected?
One of my former staff, Sarah Carothers. She ran our volunteer program for many years and had the ability to connect with anyone and everyone, no matter what walk of life they came from. She was just so genuine. People respond to that — and not only genuine, but willing to share of themselves. You can be genuine, but you have to be willing to take that risk and share yourself personally.
Who is the most community-focused person in your life, and how do they impact their communities?
Many years ago, when I first started working at the Helpline Center, Sue Aguilar was the director here, and I worked underneath her. She is incredibly community-focused. She grew up here and has been active in the community on so many different levels and just has the passion that Sioux Falls needs to be a good place to live, and she wants to make that happen.
What’s the best way to put inspiration into action?
Telling a story about a person who’s life would be changed by whatever you’re trying to do. We have this inspiration, how do we make that very granular? How do we change this person’s life? That tips people’s scale to say, OK, now I’m going to take action.
Who do you hope to leave a legacy for?
Anybody who needs help or who wants to help. That’s the foundation of the Helpline Center. I really feel like I have poured 20 years of my life into that, and I feel like that’s what I’d hope to leave behind — that people know where they can get help, and if they want to help, how they can help.
What’s your biggest failure, and what did you learn from it?
When I graduated from my master’s program, my first job was working for a psychiatric hospital, which I did for five years — individual and family therapy. It was great work, and I learned a tremendous amount that laid some foundations for me as I have moved on. But I reached a point there where I felt like, Am I making enough of a difference on an individual level? In a sense, I felt like I was a failure as a therapist, because I felt like, I’m not sure I’m making the greatest impact that I can. So I thought, I need to step back, maybe I shouldn’t be doing individual therapy.
But before I had even reached that point in my career, when I was working at the hospital, I actually saw in our employee newsletter a little blurb that said they were looking for volunteers to answer the Helpline. I didn’t even know who they were, but I thought, I have tons of time, I’ll do that! So I was actually a volunteer here for over a year, and then the coordinator for the Helpline program left, and … I took over as coordinator. I thought I would stay there for a year. Clearly, I loved it, because I stayed for 14 years before I left. And then I came back! There’s something that spoke to me, but I don’t think I would’ve gotten there if somehow I hadn’t felt like I was a failure as a therapist.
(As a therapist) there’s nothing like that individual one-on-one connection with somebody and you feel like you’re really helping them through whatever struggles they’re going through. It’s very powerful. But I think my sense of satisfaction is doing that on a bigger scale, community wide, helping a large number of people through systems, and I didn’t feel like I could make that impact on an individual level.