The newest volunteer listeners at suicide prevention hotline CONTACT We Care this week were welcomed into the growing number of those who answer the calls and texts of people in crisis, feeling suicidal or depressed. The hotline now has more than 200 volunteers answering more than 14,000 phone calls and texts annually.

CONTACT We Care, headquartered in Westfield, is a suicide prevention agency that operates a suicide prevention and crisis intervention hotline and provides suicide prevention training to the public, community groups and businesses.

The newest listeners and all their co-volunteers were celebrated at CONTACT's annual Volunteer Recognition Night, held March 3 at the Grillstone Restaurant in Scotch Plains. In addition to listeners and texters, volunteers include board members and those who help with fundraising and marketing.

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Dean Marsh of North Plainfield is one of CONTACT's newer volunteer listeners and texters. He read about the hotline in an article about Robin Williams' suicide and decided to join. He has been helping callers and texters in distress since December.

"I love it," Marsh said. "I've been averaging 48 hours a month on the lines, texting and helping in the office. This is a great organization and I really believe all the people who call need our help.

"Every call makes a difference at the end of the day, whether it's a 10 minute call or a three hour call. One caller calls back regularly and he told me from the first time I talked to him he's in a better place now."

Melissa Angowski of Colonia has been answering calls since June. She wanted to do something to help people.

"It's definitely rewarding," Angowski said. "All the callers are very thankful. They thank you at the end of each call. My first suicide caller said to me, 'Because of you I'm not going to kill myself.' That made me feel really good about myself.

Both Marsh and Angowski admit to being nervous when they started volunteering.

"I felt like I wouldn't know what to say, that something would go wrong," Angowski said. "But it actually went really well."

CONTACT volunteers are given 50 hours of instruction in empathetic and nonjudgmental active listening and mental health issues and attend a two-day intensive session on suicide intervention called ASIST, or Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training. Training is followed by an internship on the lines with experienced listeners.

"Our listeners are the heart of CONTACT We Care," said Joanne Oppelt, the hotline's executive director. "Research shows that when a person is in crisis having someone to talk to eases their distress, not only while they are on the call but for weeks afterward. We could not achieve all we do without our listeners.

"At the same time, our other volunteers play vital roles, as well. Our board members provide the leadership necessary to operate an organization like this. Our fundraisers help raise the money that keeps our listeners on the lines. And our marketing volunteers make sure people know we're here for them. Once a year we celebrate them all and say thank you."

Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer at CONTACT We Care should contact Sue Fasano, director of programs, at 908.301.1899 or sue.fasano@contactwecare.org.

CONTACT We Care also provides training to members of the public, community groups and businesses in suicide awareness and prevention, active listening, mental health first aid and preventing teenage suicide. Anyone interested in learning more about or scheduling training also should contact Fasano.

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, headquartered in Westfield and with a listening hub in Morristown and celebrating our 40th year, is Central and Northern New Jersey’s crisis listening line, receiving more than 17,000 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.