Helpline Inc., the nonprofit service that offers a 24-hour crisis hotline for people struggling with homelessness, domestic violence, alcoholism and other perils, has hired Kristen Wheeler as its executive director.
Wheeler, 41, most recently an administrator with the Visiting Nurse Association Hospice of the Florida Keys, succeeds 18-year Executive Director Lou Hernandez, who retires today.
Helpline, which has an annual budget of $130,000, remains a little known entity in the Florida Keys despite its longtime services that include making daily "reassurance calls" to the elderly who live alone.
That lack of recognition needs to change, Wheeler said.
"It's a thoroughly needed helpline," she said. "By and large, there are way too many people that don't even know about Helpline. After 31 years, that's remarkable to me. That's the first thing we need to work on."
Begun in 1982 as a service project for the Key West chapter of Zonta International, Helpline relies on volunteers to answer the calls and offer referrals from a bank of about 400 social services.
At a time when the city of Key West shot down a proposal to add 110 units of senior housing, including assisted living homes, Helpline continues to make the daily calls to Keys seniors living by themselves.
"We're kind of at a pivotal moment with what's happened recently with the assisted living," said Wheeler. "We know that's not going to be coming along anytime soon. It makes our reassurance program that much more critical."
VNA President and CEO Jody Gross said her agency will certainly miss Wheeler's skills, but congratulated her on the move to nonprofit executive director.
"We are so excited that Helpline also recognizes her great skills and has given her this wonderful opportunity to continue to service those in need in our community," said Gross on Friday. "Our loss is their gain."
Born and raised in suburban Detroit, Mich., by a police officer father and a mother who worked retail at Macy's, Wheeler is the youngest of three children.
She studied psychology at Wayne State University in Detroit and began working in health care at age 19 with a job in a hospital X-ray department, and quickly moved into fundraising for the foundation.
Wheeler stayed with the St. John Health System, a group of nine hospitals, for 13 years.
From there, she took a job with the Michigan chapter of the Alzheimer's Association as a volunteer coordinator and fundraiser.
She and her husband, VNA Vice President and CFO Greg Wheeler, moved to the Keys about nine years ago, having been hooked after being longtime vacationers.
Here she started at the American Cancer Society and later spent a year working for the PACE Center for Girls, which in 2008 shut down its funding for the Keys.
Hernandez, 70, who also won't run for re-election on the Utility Board -- his term ends Oct. 1 -- gave about six weeks' notice.
Helpline's board of directors formed a four-person selection committee that started with 19 applicants.
"We had one from Greece," said board President Mary Lou Hoover.
The board held its annual meeting Thursday night at the Beachside Marriott, when Wheeler was formally announced as the new executive director.
Wheeler started Tuesday.
Helpline plans to bring back "Matter of Balance" training, which teaches seniors how to prevent falls.