Nonprofit key to serving Delaware’s most vulnerable

Connections staffers welcome a new client at a center in Harrington.

By Michael Bradley
Special to Delaware Business Times

Cathy McKay, CEO of Connection CSP, leads one of the biggest nonprofit organizations in the state. But she still prefers hands-on work to attending galas or meetings at Leg Hall.

“I would rather talk to a person with schizophrenia or someone with an opioid addiction than to politicians,” McKay said. “A lot of people don’t feel that way.”

Connections CSP is a statewide nonprofit bringing health care, housing, addiction treatment and employment assistance to Delaware’s most vulnerable populations.The organization serves 40,000 people, employs 1,600, and has an annual budget of $110 million. McKay has been with the organization for 31 years and the CEO since 1990.

The state contracts out a variety of services to Connections, maintaining oversight but providing little day-to-day assistance.

“I think this is a smart plan,” McKay said. “Delaware state employees are heavily unionized and work on a merit system. The state knew when it contracted with us that we knew how to work with people who, say, have been institutionalized for 50 years. People who deal with them have to run around at all hours, and it would be tough to get state employees to do that.”

It’s also difficult to find many outfits willing to undertake the vast scope of the work Connections CSP performs. In addition to providing health care for many Delawareans, it is primary provider of medical, dental and mental health care for the 6,500 people held in the Delaware correctional system.

“Because Connections is so active in many different areas and is able to address many issues, it is particularly valuable, as opposed to other groups that might have to refer someone to multiple agencies,” said Michael Barbieri, director of Delaware’s Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services.

Connections began by providing housing for the elderly as part of the Church Home Foundation, according to McKay. During its first five years, it also provided treatment for many of the mentally ill people released from institutions after decades removed from society.

In 1990, Church Home merged with another organization, and Connections became a stand-alone entity. At that time, the state approached the organization and asked if it would provide assistance to the homeless.

Connections had a budget of $2.5 million, with 100 staffers, and provided services for 1,000 people. The ensuing 27 years have brought significant growth and diversification. They have also brought an increased funding base that includes government contracts, as well as money from Medicaid, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Veterans Administration. Delaware, for example, pays Connections a flat fee per prisoner each month to provide services in correctional institutions.

“Connections is very helpful to the state,” Barbieri said. “It’s one of the few agencies out there capable of doing as much as it does. Connections’ willingness to expand beyond single issues is very valuable.”

One of Connections’ biggest priorities is opioid addiction. Last year, 308 people died of overdoses related to the drugs, and Delawareans struggle with issues related to both street and prescription varieties in large numbers. According to COO Chris Devaney, Connections runs five clinics throughout the state. Over the past five years, it has gone from serving a handful of people each day to more than 2,000.

“We employ recovery coaches, and we employ people who have been impacted by this situation themselves,” said Devaney, who has been with Connections more than 18 years. “If someone doesn’t show up for treatment, we have people who can go look for that person and understand what has happened.”

It’s part of a network of services provided for populations who are not — and could not be — served well by the state. People don’t have to work with multiple agencies and navigate a difficult bureaucratic path to receive the help they need. Instead, Connections provides multiple solutions from one central launch point. That’s a valuable resource and a successful approach that should endure and grow in the future.

“I believe the model works,” McKay said. “I’ve done a lot of consulting in different states with similar populations and situations, and I have found that you need a provider that has flexibility and isn’t tied down to a particular system.”

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