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Dear Struggling in Ohio: 'You're not alone.' Love, the sewer district

Man stands in front of sign that reads "Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District"
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
John Gonzalez of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District has spearheaded their unique social media outreach, including recording a voicemail message which has become a phenomenon.

A few days before Christmas, John Gonzalez posted a phone number on his work’s social media feeds. It was vague.

It said, ”just a phone number, a voicemail, and a whole lot of emotions.”

Curiosity got the best of some of the thousands of people who follow the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District on X, formerly Twitter, and other social media, and they called the number.

Gonzalez had recorded a message for them.

"Maybe you're struggling with something that no one else knows about. Maybe you're just trying to make ends meet between paydays. Maybe you've lost something or someone close to you, and you don't really know what a holiday season will look like without them," it said. "So let me tell you right now that you're not alone."

That simple gesture touched a lot of people, who left messages themselves. At first, Gonzalez said there were hundreds of voicemails left on the line. Then there were thousands.

People were opening up, wanting — apparently needing — to be heard, he said.

One person talked about celebrating Christmas with their 98-year-old mother. Another discussed navigating the holidays after losing their job. A third said their father had died in the last year, and that they missed him.

Too, some callers acknowledged it’s a little weird to leave an emotional voicemail for a utility company that treats sewage. But that seems to have added to people's delight.

It was the only message Justin Strekal, who follows the sewer district on X, said he heard in December that included those who are struggling.

"I think a lot of other government agencies should be taking notes about how to reach their constituents where they are and meet them where they are in a non-patronizing, earnest way," he said.  

Man stands outside downtown
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Justin Strekal didn't leave a message of his own, but was impressed with the authenticity and success of Regional Sewer District's social media engagement.

When Gonzalez, who is the district's communications director, started his career 23 years ago, the technology he uses to connect with customers now didn’t exist. The district started experimenting with social media in 2009.

"We've used the creative potential of social media to help to connect with customers in unexpected ways," he said. "Humor has helped us to open some doors for deeper conversations and deeper relevance to the work that we do." 

Since then, it has achieved a sort of rockstar status on social media by infusing information about water treatment operations with quirky, authentic humor.  Its account on X now has nearly 60,000 followers.

man stands in front of building with fire hydrant in the foreground
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
John Gonzalez stands outside the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District headquarters.

"It allows us to make unexpected connections to the importance of our work or the relevance of our work, or simply the type of service that goes on unseen and unexpected around people every single day," he said.


plumbing lessons in holiday movies

♬ original sound - NE OH Regional Sewer

In December, Gonzalez posted a video on TikTok titled “Plumbing Lessons in Holiday Movies.” There’s Gonzalez in front of clips from Home Alone. There’s a lesson in there — remember the Wet Bandits? They flood every home they break into.  

“These men are not plumbing or flood control specialists," Gonzalez reminds followers. "A burst pipe or overflowing sink can cause thousands of dollars’ worth of property damage.”

The video ends with a scene from National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation that must shake dedicated sewer district employees to their cores. There’s Cousin Eddy in his bathrobe and winter cap with ear flaps emptying his chemical toilet into Clark Griswold’s sewer.

“Do not discharge anything to your storm drains,” Gonzalez deadpans.

It’s creativity like this that brings in clicks and likes. And that helps the district, according to Gonzalez.

"That certainly pays dividends in terms of awareness of opportunities and the public service aspects that exist here within the organization," he said.

Gina Kelly, of Shaker Heights, is one of the sewer district customers who felt compelled to leave a voice message of thanks.

woman stands in front of wall with paintings
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
"I decided to leave a message back because they're putting out an effort to make a personal connection. And I thought that, you know, I owe that back to them," said Gina Kelly, of Shaker Heights.

"I said, 'Thank you for all you do,'" she said. "I thanked them so much for all of my infrastructure knowledge... being that voice for not only what they are as a utility but you know, contributing to, better habits and just a better community."

"They are a really great resource not only for... what they specialize in, but a good spirit in general," Kelly added.

It's not just local customers of the sewer district that have responded to the call for engagement. Some, like Andrea Thome, don't live in Northeast Ohio, but still felt the need to respond to the message.

woman smiling
Andrea Thome
Ideastream Public Media
Andrea Thome, wife of former Cleveland baseball star and hall-of-fame inductee, Jim Thome, was one of over 2,000 to leave voice messages.

"I just couldn't believe the message. And I thought, you know, I had to leave a message," said Thome, a one-time Cleveland resident and wife of legendary Cleveland baseball star, Jim Thome. "I think I just rambled on and said, thank you so much for using your platform to connect to people."

It was this desire to bring people together that resonated with Thome above all else. "Anybody that's looking to unite people or just find the common thread that we can all grasp onto and head in the right direction. I am on board," said Thome.

Gonzalez has tried to listen to all the messages. It’s tough to hear from people who are going through so much, he said.

"I'm grateful that people are willing to share and are open to responding, taking them out of a very comfortable space like social media... and having them call a number that's just out of blind faith," he said.

Gonzalez thinks maybe that faith helped many get through the holiday and hopes it lightens a burden to know someone on the other end of a phone call or in a tweet does care — even if that caring comes from a most unlikely place.

Josh Boose is associate producer for newscasts at Ideastream Public Media.
Ygal Kaufman is a multiple media journalist with Ideastream Public Media.