While in high school, Lynn DeVito suffered a back injury that made walking difficult. A passionate dancer, DeVito fought bouts of depression. Several years later she was serving as a volunteer listener on a crisis hotline and found herself speaking with a teenage girl experiencing similar emotional challenges.

“The story she told me was extremely similar to what I had gone through with depression,” DeVito said. “Talking to her was more like talking to a friend than talking to a caller. We talked for about an hour. She told me was going to start taking medicine and start getting her life back in order.”

DeVito received a heartfelt thank you this week. She and other volunteer listeners and fundraisers at crisis hotline CONTACT We Care were honored at the organization’s annual Volunteer Appreciation Dinner, held at L’Affaire in Mountainside. CONTACT is a crisis intervention and suicide prevention hotline located in Westfield.

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“Our volunteer listeners and support staff are the lifeblood of our organization,” said Joanne Oppelt, CONTACT executive director. “Every 14 minutes someone in our nation dies from suicide and the frequency increases during difficult economic times. In addition, suicide is the third leading cause of death among youth aged 15-24, the second leading cause of death among college students and the fourth leading cause of death among children 10-14.

“So many people are in crisis and often find that someone at a crisis hotline is the only person who will listen to them. By being there for those people, by providing them with an empathetic ear and, through training, by guiding them to a positive conclusion, our listeners are saving lives and bettering lives. We can’t thank them enough for that gift.”

The Volunteer Appreciation Dinner recognized the hotline’s listeners and texters, trainers and those who provide volunteer support in a variety of other ways, such as fundraising and tech support.

DeVito has been involved with CONTACT for four years, first as a listener and coordinator at the Scarlet Listeners, a peer counseling hotline at Rutgers University affiliated with CONTACT, and then as a listener at CONTACT itself.

“I lost a close friend to suicide my freshman year,” she said. “I also had a cousin who was very ill and attempted suicide that same year. I was looking for something to do to help people.

“It’s been the most rewarding experience I could ever have imagined. Every time you pick up the phone you are going to help someone. Being a listener has given my life meaning.”

Yang Jiang has been a volunteer listener for about six months following her four months of training. She is preparing to earn her master’s degree in psychology and was looking for an opportunity to see if she was good at it and at working with people.

“It’s been really incredible,” she said. “It’s one of the most amazing things I’ve done. There’s nothing like picking up the phone and being plugged into someone’s life at such a crisis moment…It’s scary but it’s also something that connects you to another person. That connection seeps into more parts of your life and that makes you more open with other people.”

Sneha Ganguli wanted to get involved with a nonprofit and was drawn to CONTACT because of its mission. She applied to become a listener and while waiting for the next training class has been working as a fundraiser. Ganguli is helping put together CONTACT’s Casino Night fundraising event, scheduled for March 22 at the Westwood in Garwood, soliciting donations for prizes.

“I love it. I’m really happy I found the organization,” she said. “I feel very proud to be working with such a strong group in efforts to give back to the community. What we do as an organization is really invaluable. People are really happy to help because we do a lot of great work.”

Both DeVito and Jiang understand that people considering volunteering at a nonprofit may be intimated by the idea of talking to people in crisis and having such responsibility. Both say that should not deter someone from volunteering at CONTACT.

“CONTACT gives really good training,” Jiang said. “That’s helps with my nerves. In the beginning they put you on the phone with someone who’s being doing this a long time.”

“You never know how that first call is going to go,” DeVito said. “But there’s always someone who can help you. In time you forget that fear and it becomes a great experience. I hope people will find it in themselves to volunteer.”

To learn more about becoming a volunteer at CONTACT We Care, call 908.301.1899 or visit www.contactwecare.org.

CONTACT We Care serves Central and Northern New Jersey and is a primary responder to calls to the national suicide prevention line (1-800-273-TALK or 1-800-SUICIDE) that originate in New Jersey.  Callers also reach CONTACT by dialing 908-232-2880 or texting “CWC” to 839863.

About CONTACT We Care

CONTACT We Care is Central and Northern New Jersey’s crisis listening line, receiving more than 12,000 calls per year.  CONTACT brings comfort and hope to people in emotional distress through active, empathetic and nonjudgmental listening.  All calls are free, anonymous and confidential.  If you are in crisis and need someone to listen, call our hotline at 908-232-2880.  We are affiliated with CONTACT USA, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and the American Association of Suicidology.  For general information about CONTACT We Care or to become a volunteer, call us at 908-301-1899 or visit our website at www.contactwecare.org.