By Denise Briggs Potter
On a Busy Friday afternoon, community members gather to assist visitors at Bainbridge Island’s food bank, to discuss a job search with counselors, and to share stories over a cup of tea. Helpline House—a place where people feel welcome to both give and receive support—is humming along under the guidance of its executive director, Maria Metzler.
Metzler, who assumed the role in 2017, looks to the organization’s past to shape the future of Helpline House. “What’s new is what’s old,” Metzler said. “Helpline House originally started in someone’s garage. When you needed something, you knew you could go to Helpline House and they would help figure it out.” Metzler’s goal is for the public to become aware of Helpline House’s breadth of services and needs. “A lot of people think we’re only a food bank, because that is the way the public interacts with us,” Metzler said. Helpline House also provides free mental health counseling, social work case management, and a variety of vouchers and free passes to local organizations like the Bloedel Reserve and the Boys & Girls Club of Bainbridge Island. Metzler said caseworkers meet visitors individually to evaluate their needs and make a plan for support.
“This is a place where you can come for any reason,” she said. “We want every person who walks through our door to have the same personal experience.” People who come to Helpline House for support are often those who contributed money, food or time in the past. Metzler recalled a holiday party where a guest approached her and said he used to donate, but now was someone in need.
“That is exactly what Helpline is for,’” Metzler said. “We all have needs, and it doesn’t always have to do with how much money we make. Mental illness does not discriminate. You could have a high-paying job and suddenly lose it because of the economy or an illness. There is no shame in needing these services.” Metzler’s passion has always been in community building. She began her career working at Seattle’s Downtown Emergency Service Center in 2003 where she helped create a safe place for homeless people to stay who had mental or physical health issues and no other place to go.
“I learned so much about humanness—what we’re capable of toward others, and how much we’re alike at the core,” she said. Metzler also learned the importance of community. “A healthy community includes everyone,” she said. “It includes people that look different, think differently, have different life experiences from the ones that we have, and all contribute in the ways that they can.” Before DESC in Seattle, Metzler worked as a volunteer for a variety of organizations including L’Arche, a community for people with mental and physical disabilities. “L’Arche’s model is that you all live together in one house,” she said. “The philosophy is that all of us are broken, and some of us are just better able to hide it than others. But if all of us come together, we are better.”
After a year as Helpline’s executive director, Metzler feels that she has found her “perfect place” and is at home in her work community. She has a crib in her office for her 5-month-old, and she said her 4-year-old twins love to run around the building and interact with staff. “My children knew what I did in Seattle, but it was very ‘other,’ it wasn’t integrated in our lives,” she said. “I wanted my kids to grow up knowing what a true community looks like, what their place in it is, how they can give and receive.”
Metzler’s hope is that Helpline House continues to be flexible and adaptable to meet the community’s changing needs. She also wants the public to know how much she appreciates their generous support. “I am floored by the people who come in and donate large sums of money, I am tickled by the kids that come in and give $20 from their bake sale, and I am humbled by the people who come in presenting their needs, because it’s not always easy to do so,” she said. “I’m happy to be present for all of that.”