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Soothing Souls, Saving Lives; Crisis Hotline To Celebrate 35 Years, Honor Judy Collins At Benefit Gala

WESTFIELD, NJ - There was the pink slip from his job, an eviction notice from his angry and distraught wife, the trappings of another night of drinking in his stomach and, finally, a desperate call for help.

CONTACT We Care, a Westfield-based crisis hotline that helps prevent suicides and self-destructive behavior, heard the cry and listened until emergency professionals could provide assistance.

“There are a lot of people out there who are lonely and don’t have anyone to talk to,” said David Owens, executive director of CONTACT We Care. “A dangerous situation could have grown from there.”

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The volunteer listening service will celebrate its 35th year of offering compassion and empathy to the residents of Central and Northern New Jersey at a benefit gala, Thursday, Nov. 11, at Shackamaxon Golf & Country Club in Scotch Plains.

Grammy Award-nominated Judy Collins and Nobel Laureate John Nash and his wife, Alicia, as well as Sylvia Axelrod, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of New Jersey, and James Lape, senior vice president at Trinitas Regional Medical Center, will be honored.

Lori Stokes, the Emmy Award-winning television reporter and anchor of ABC’s “Eyewitness News this Morning” and “Eyewitness News at Noon” will serve as mistress of ceremonies. Rep. Jon Bramnick (R-21) will conduct the evening’s Live Auction.

Gala festivities will include a cocktail reception, live entertainment, live and silent auctions, celebration dinner and an honors ceremony. Tickets are $150 and $250 at www.contactwecare.org.

CONTACT We Care has been listening to lonely, desperate and depressed callers confronting traumatic life crises including loss of a loved one, divorce or unemployment. Some callers are dealing with mental illness; others are in need of a supplemental source of comfort. All are grieving.

“Grief and loss are part of every call we take,” said Owens, a 31-year Westfield resident who joined the staff as a volunteer nine years ago following the suicide of his teen-age son’s best friend. “People need to talk about it. We don’t sit and listen passively and we don’t give them advice on what to do. We reflect the feelings they are expressing in our questions to clarify their own situation, and that can settle them.”

Owens said the pain is felt in many forms. One woman in her 20's reached out in tears, fearing the impending death from illness of her mother and grandmother; while a 50-year-old autistic man felt trapped in his dependent living conditions. Many have alcohol and drug addictions.

Some are clinically diagnosed, including the woman who could not get over the loss of her husband two years ago and was referred by her therapist to call. 

“Who can put a time limit on grief?” said Owens. “A common characteristic many callers share is an inability to find pleasure in any activity, or to find humor in any situation.”

Volunteers, and there are more than 100 now, receive 50 hours of training in active listening skills and are under the supervision of a licensed clinical social worker. They receive an average of 30 calls a day and some 11,000 each year.

“Volunteers can burn out or experience compassion fatigue,” said Owens. “It’s important for us to be very aware of taking care of ourselves.”

Owens said CONTACT We Care volunteers have found that the experience has enriched their lives and given them a greater appreciation for family, friends and colleagues.

“We learn to shut up and listen,” said Owens. “That’s hard for some people to do.” 

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