Contact: a nationwide clearinghouse for people in trouble
| Lincoln, Neb.
Gary Hill loves the moral of the bread truck story. Several years ago, a library with a severe budget squeeze decided to scrap certain services. One of the programs slated to be cut was a weekly book delivery to a local prison.
When library officials called Mr. Hill about the problem, he had another solution: Find a company with delivery routes near both locations. A bread company was found, and it agreed to deliver the library books for free.
The episode goes a long way to explain this short, feisty man from Lincoln, Neb. Part Good Samaritan, part supersalesman, Hill preaches a philosophy that can only be described as supply-side social service.
Exactly 20 years ago, Hill started a nonprofit company to put that philosophy into practice. He called it Contact Center Inc. Originally an information service for convicted criminals newly released from prison, the company has grown into a full-fledged information clearinghouse for people in trouble.
''All government has is money,'' he says. ''My philosophy is: You don't need money. You need what money can buy.
''If we take our blinders off and look around, we can find a lot of resources that don't cost any money.''
On any given day, runaways, drug addicts, ex-offenders, and others reach the Contact center here by toll-free telephone or by mail. In March, Hill's 19 full-time employees and about 80 volunteers handled about 2,000 calls for help.
Contact Center, Hill says, is the national secretary of human services and the only one of its kind. Using extensive computer banks, Contact employees match people in need with local services that can help.
Twenty years have made Hill optimistic:
''The whole psyche of America is volunteer. . . . The resources are there. All we have to do is to coordinate them with a vehicle other than money.''
For example, when a prison inmate in California was released and had no money to reach his family in Florida, Contact got a national moving company to pick him up and shuttle him among trucks until he reached his destination. The charge? Nothing.
''Instead of being hardhearted - as I hear people saying about America - we keep opening up to help,'' Hill says. ''In the early '60s and '50s, there were a lot of things we didn't even perceive as problems.''
Americans used to be concerned about families living out of cars, he says. Now, with that problem diminished, concern has shifted to those housed in structures with bare wiring. ''We've raised our minimum level for what we consider acceptable.''
There is a kind of poetic justice in the fact that Hill preaches the bounty of America from his second-floor office in the middle of a scrap-metal yard. Outside, employees of the Northwestern Metal Company (owned by Hill's father and grandfather before him) pick clean the valuable remains of junk cars. Inside, Hill tries to squeeze more services out of available, but not always recognized, resources.
''He's probably the supreme hustler in the world. And I mean that in a complimentary way,'' says one colleague and longtime friend, recalling the time Hill suggested that garbagemen pass out leaflets for halfway houses in four communities. The sanitation workers agreed to leave the leaflets under the handle of the lid on trash cans they had emptied.
One of the hallmarks of Contact is that it doesn't ever say ''no,'' Hill says. Staff members are liable to be fired if they don't try to help a caller - including the one several years ago who wanted to know the number of trees in a downtown park in Lincoln. (Contact found the answer, though Hill can no longer remember what it was.)
''Most of the people we deal with are not greedy - by their standards,'' Hill says. ''The American Dream always wants more. Why should we ask them to lower their expectations? I don't want to live in a society where even the poor give up, because that's when you lose creativity and desire.''
Never saying ''no,'' however, has its challenges.
Contact continues to provide references for many social-service organizations , even though they no longer pay for the hot line. About 30 percent of the company's $750,000 budget comes from formal contracts, currently five. The rest comes from the sale of Contact's many books and pamphlets, printing jobs for other companies, and consulting work done by Hill and others at Contact.
Over the years, Hill says he has sold close to $200,000 worth of his own assets to keep Contact going. (''I'm not a possession person,'' he explains.) On three occasions, the company has skated to the brink of bankruptcy.
The last crisis occurred 11/2 years ago. Contact was starting a pilot program for troubled youth and several bills were past due. A $126,000 contract from the United States Department of Health and Human Services was not forthcoming. Hill had already decided what equipment and personal assets he would sell to keep the service going, if not the organization. On the very last day, the grant came through.
Since then, the shoestring has grown a little longer and a little fatter, but Hill is already looking to expand.
Currently, he is trying to interest a large motel chain in funding a ''peace of mind'' program. Guests would call in to Contact when they checked in and receive any human-service help they might need. Contact could also notify the guests' families that they had arrived.
Eventually, he hopes to raise enough money to expand Contact to the point that it could advertise itself as a national resource center. He envisions a single toll-free number with enough phones and staff so that anybody with any problem could call for help - from the hungry bag lady to the Cadillac owner with the runaway son.
''I contend (that) in 20 minutes we can find any resource for any individual in any place of the United States,'' Hill boasts. ''In my opinion, I think Reagan's right, but I don't think he knows how to get it done.
''You don't replace government dollars with private dollars. But you can replace government dollars with private services.''
Outside his office, Hill is waxing eloquent: ''We can handle the entire United States for $3.5 million a year,'' he says, throwing his arms behind him and looking upward.
He pauses and closes his eyes, as if to savor the possibilities of that exciting thought. His face is beaming.
Contact: PO Box 81826, Lincoln, Neb. 68501