published Sunday, June 22nd, 2014

A hoorah and a hooray for Contact

The volunteers tell similar stories.

Because the volunteer happened to be on the receiving end of a Contact of Southeast Tennessee telephone call sometime between 1969 and 2013, the caller did not complete a suicide attempt, felt a little bit less lonely, believed there was still hope after months of unemployment or realized time would heal the wound inflicted by a friend, spouse or child.

They know that because the troubled caller re-contacted the agency to tell them how their life had been saved or changed.

Over the years, the 24-hour telephone crisis line assisted more than 700,000 people, including as many as 22,000 calls a year in the early 1980s.

A year ago this month, Contact of Southeast Tennessee ended its service, a victim of reach-out-and-touch communications technology the likes of the Internet, iPads and Facebook. Board member and former board chairwoman Sandee Jenkins said at the time the agency could not meet its payroll, owed taxes and had seen its volunteer ranks dwindle.

But more important than why it closed is what the telephone ministry did for 44 years.

Chris Delaney, president of Joseph’s Coat Ministries, said when Contact closed last year that it had worked with his agency for many years.

“What made [it] so special,” he said, “was when a caller reached out for help, not only did they receive a referral from a trained volunteer, but they also received a person on the other line whose voice was full of compassion and the love of Christ for their fellow man or woman.”

Former Contact officials and volunteers will recall some of those moments Saturday at 10:30 a.m. when they gather for a free brunch at what’s being called Contact’s One Last Hoorah at Ridgedale Baptist Church, 1831 Hickory Valley Road. Any volunteers not already contacted are welcome to attend. Reservations (423-842-0684, barbarajohn63@icloud.com) are appreciated but not mandatory.

Barbara Jones, who was hired as the agency’s administrative assistant in 1982 and served until it closed last year, said she also took hot line calls since “day one.”

She said the calls were “far more serious early on,” including crisis-driven issues such as suicide and domestic violence, but toward the end — though still important — increasingly came from repeat callers with various levels of mental illness.

“The young people were not going to pick up a phone and call an old lady,” she said. “We lost the young people.”

Today, according to Jones, “nobody picks up a phone and asks for information. You Google it.”

Funding also fell off, she said. Without funding, of course, agencies eventually cease to exist.

Jenkins, who had been involved with Contact as a volunteer, board member or board chairman for 17 years, said last year it is vital for nonprofit agencies to have a base of support to continue.

“If they want these organizations to hang around,” she said, “they have to support them with money or volunteers.”

Fortunately, Jones said, Contact was staffed for years with “wonderful, wonderful volunteers. Everybody hated to see it close. They say they miss their shifts and talking to people. They would go the 10th mile, more than what you would think.”

Contact began in Chattanooga on Sept. 2, 1969, two years after its start in the United States and six years after its founding by Sir Alan Walker, pastor of Central Methodist Church in Sydney, Australia.

The Rev. Curt Schofield, then pastor of St. Paul United Methodist Church (a forerunner of Christ UMC in East Brainerd), was its first director.

Chattanooga is fortunate to have had — and had the foresight to start — this telephone ministry. And on Saturday, when volunteers gather to renew acquaintances and talk about the ministry, they should feel gratified there are healthy and vibrant people walking around in the Scenic City today because they — at one minute of one day and just when they needed it — were at the other end of a telephone line and were willing to offer a sympathetic ear.

“[It] was a very viable ministry,” said Jones. “It was my pleasure to be a part of it.”

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