published Tuesday, October 16th, 2012

Contact leader sees crisis service as life's work

Gary Paul is executive director at Contact of Chattanooga. The organization offers counseling over the phone to people going through a crisis.
Gary Paul is executive director at Contact of Chattanooga. The organization offers counseling over the phone to people going through a crisis.
Photo by Tim Barber.
FACT FILE ABOUT HIM

* Age: 57.

* Family: Wife, Tina; sons Austin, 25, and Jonah, 18.

* Pets: Dog, Ozzy; cats Spooky and Sparkles.

* Education: Graduated from East Ridge High School in 1973 and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 1986.

* Favorite books: "Cat's Cradle" by Kurt Vonnegut and "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac.

* Favorite movies: "Saving Private Ryan" and "Casablanca."

* Embarrassing moment: "As a kid, I was in the Chattanooga Boys Choir, and we were singing at church. The music director told me to get up and sing by myself, and I totally forgot the words. My mind went blank."

* Something that would surprise people: "I'm an open book. I did build our house about 10 years ago. I contracted out some work, but I did a lot. It took about 18 months. I'd work on it every day when I got off work from my regular job."

Gary Paul said helping others has been his life's calling.

Paul left his position a year ago as development director at the Chattanooga Area Food Bank to become executive director at Contact of Chattanooga, recently renamed Contact of Southeast Tennessee.

He's got his work cut out for him.

"We need volunteers," he said.

Contact is a calling center where compassionate volunteers console and assist troubled individuals through phone calls. It's completely anonymous.

"We're always looking for volunteers," he said. "It's a very rewarding position. We've got five volunteers who've been here for more than 30 years and more than 20 who have been here for 20 years."

Paul acknowledges that people today are very busy, but technology now allows volunteers to work from their home instead of the call center on Vance Road, which is still an option.

Current volunteers range in age from 19 to 95, he said.

Last year, Contact volunteers answered more than 7,300 calls, he said. He expects the number will rise this year. Since its launch in Chattanooga in 1969, more than 700,000 people have called the center.

Q: Did your work at the Food Bank help prepare you for your position at Contact?

A: I learned a lot working at the Food Bank. I was there eight years. It's a vital mission the Food Bank does, and Iwas very dedicated. While I was there, we grew from 12 staff members in a 28,000-square-foot building to 23 employees in a 40,000-square-foot building when I left one year ago. Being part of the growth was exciting, rewarding and fulfilling. Not only did I learn a lot, I also gained confidence in my abilities. I came away confident stepping into this position at Contact.

I grew up in St. Elmo, and it was a very close-knit community where people helped their neighbors. I believe it has had everything to do with my career choice. At the Food Bank, I worked to help people with physical needs. Here at Contact, it's emotional needs. I have more contact with clients here, and that has a phenomenal effect on me personally.

Q: When was Contact founded and why?

A: At Contact, our compassionate volunteers are trained to console and assist troubled individuals. We are a volunteer crisis hotline center and referral service. If individuals have troubles and don't know where to turn for help, we provide a listening ear. Some people don't have someone to talk to or they're not comfortable talking about their problems to people they know. We're totally anonymous. There's no caller identification on the phones. We offer anonymity that allows the caller to open up. Most of our volunteers work three- or four-hour shifts once or twice a month.

Q: What are the volunteer requirements?

A: Most importantly, a willingness to help people in need. Nowadays, most of our volunteers work from their homes. When they start their shifts, we transfer calls to their home or cellphone numbers. We make sure the volunteers have all the referral information at their homes. Since we have that ability today, it's allowed people with differing abilities to help. We had a lady who volunteered from her bed in a nursing home. She was paralyzed. We have two volunteers who are visually impaired. An Introduction to Contact class will be held on Nov. 3. (For more information, call the office at 899-5719.)

Q: Is Contact as well known today as it has been in the past?

A: Contact has been around for 43 years, and it's kind of gone off the radar, and that's what I'm working on -- to establish a place in the community. People are still calling, but some people don't know the value of what we do. We had more than 7,300 calls in 2011; that's down from when we started in 1969. Back then, there was no such thing as crisis intervention. It was a new concept.

Q: Why the new name?

A: The McMinn-Meigs-Monroe Contact board voted to cease operations last fall. We stepped in and offered to take over their operations, which we did in December of last year. We continue to use the crisis phone numbers and refer callers to agencies in their communities. That is why we changed our name from Contact of Chattanooga to Contact of Southeast Tennessee.

Q: What is the nature of most of the calls?

A: Whether it's a young man who's heartbroken over a girlfriend or someone facing foreclosure, they call us. We're also getting more calls from a growing segment of folks with mental-health issues. The mental-health field is so overburdened that they tell some clients to call Contact in between appointments or visits. There are folks who say that the Contact volunteers are the only people they talked to that day. Contact provides a release, and that's important. You don't know what a relief it is just to talk to someone. Statistics show that 100 people kill themselves every day in the United States. A soldier is 12 times more likely to die from his own hand than from enemy fire. And suicide is preventable. When someone is in crisis mode, they need someone to talk to. That's why we're here.

About 20 years ago, we got a call from someone who had taken pills to kill herself. The caller told the volunteer that she had taken the pills but didn't want to die alone. It was evident that she died during the phone call. What we do is to try to keep people from getting to that point -- to get them the help they need to work on solutions.

If, for example, we have a young mother in an abusive situation, we put them in touch with Room in the Inn or Chattanooga Partnership. If someone suffers from substance abuse, we send them to CADAS or Bradley Behavioral Health Systems.

Q: Who founded Contact?

A: The concept of Contact was started by a Methodist pastor in Sydney, Australia. He got a call from someone threatening suicide. After that, he started a telephone ministry to help people in crisis. After hearing about this, 40 pastors in the Chattanooga area got together in Chattanooga and started Contact.

Q: Does Contact get more calls during the holiday season than the rest of the year?

A: Maybe a little more, but it's not noticeable. One of our volunteers is a doctorate student, and she crunched the numbers of our calls. We were surprised to learn that there's no difference in the days of the week or weekends when we get more calls, or the time of year, summer or winter. The calls are consistent throughout the year, the same flow year-round.

Q: Who funds Contact?

A: We are totally supported by donations, mostly through churches and individuals. We continue to provide spiritual support when callers ask for prayers either with a volunteer or through prayer lists. We leave that option to the caller. If they want to pray, we pray.

Contact Karen Nazor Hill at khill@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6396. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/karennazorhill. Subscribe to her posts on Facebook at www.facebook.com/karennazorhill.

about Karen Nazor Hill...

Feature writer Karen Nazor Hill covers fashion, design, home and gardening, pets, entertainment, human interest features and more. She also is an occasional news reporter and the Town Talk columnist. She previously worked for the Catholic newspaper Tennessee Register and was a reporter at the Chattanooga Free Press from 1985 to 1999, when the newspaper merged with the Chattanooga Times. She won a Society of Professional Journalists Golden Press third-place award in feature writing for ...

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