Theresa Tobey

had just moved to Medford and was seeking some community involvement when a neighbor told her about an organization called Contact, a free telephone crisis hotline. The neighbor tried it and dropped out. Tobey took the training and stayed for 30 years. She now serves as the organization's executive director.

Now known as Contact of Burlington County, the organization recently celebrated its 35th anniversary - and has a record of not a single gap in its 24/7 phone coverage in those 35 years.

Question: What was your working life before you became Contact of Burlington County's executive director?

Answer: My background is in accounting, and I spent most of my career in corporate real estate accounting. In 1992, I made the transition to social service because it just felt like a better fit for me. And all the while, I continued volunteering for Contact. It was such a caring, nonjudgmental atmosphere that I knew I wanted to be a part of it. In 2000, I became the executive director.

Q: What is Contact's mission?

A: The heart of it is our 24/7 free help line for anyone in need. We use carefully trained volunteers in three program areas: our general crisis help line, our rape care program and our Reassurance outreach to the homebound and elderly. Our help line volunteers serve on the phones for a minimum of 12 hours a month.

We also have a teen peer help line run by trained teen volunteers who must be 14 years old, have parental permission, and already be in high school. The teens are supervised by adult volunteers.

Q: How are suicide calls handled?

A: Those are always our most dramatic calls, and our crisis line volunteers are carefully and constantly trained in how to deal with them. Many of these calls are distress calls involving someone with suicidal thoughts. Your first job is to try to de-stress the situation, and if necessary and possible, to try to get support from a relative or friend.

You can work for Contact of Burlington County for years, and have distress calls and suicidal-thoughts calls, and never have a suicide in progress call. In my years, I've had three in-progress calls, all of which had good outcomes. These are definitely the ones you never forget.

Q: How does Contact help young children?

A: We have a KidsLine, which elementary school-age kids learn about through school notices. A lot of those calls are, frankly, just for reassurance. A typical one might concern a child who has dropped mom's best bowl and doesn't know what to do. We walk the child through possible solutions and outcomes that we have them propose, and that almost always makes them feel better.

Q: What is Contact's greatest accomplishment, in your view?

A: Without a doubt, it's been maintaining and sustaining a help line for 35 years, using trained volunteers for front-line response. It's difficult enough to sustain that with a paid staff, but we've done it with volunteers. And that's just so gratifying.

To Learn More