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Framingham

United Way rallies helpers for hot line

When Samaritans Inc. abruptly shut down its Framingham crisis call center in June, volunteers were dismayed and hurt. Last week, some of those same volunteers met again, this time to celebrate.

With the aid of the United Way of Tri-County, they have regrouped to form Call2Talk, which will operate a new call center in Framingham.

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“Volunteers are already trained, and local, and they are here,” Eileen Davis, who is overseeing the effort, said in an interview. “They’re over the moon to be able to serve again.”

Davis was with Samaritans for 27 years, and was the director of its Framingham office when it closed. She is now the United Way of Tri-County’s mental health line program director.

The Call2Talk center, which is “still in development mode,” will be open by the end of this year, said Davis. The center, with its focus on suicide prevention by assisting individuals in crisis through its hot line and raising community awareness about related mental health issues, will serve the 28 area cities and towns covered by the Framingham-based United Way agency.

The center needs 150 volunteers to operate the hot line around the clock, said Davis. About 75 former Samaritans volunteers have signed on, while new volunteers are being recruited for the new hot line, she said.

Founded about 30 years ago, Samaritans of Framingham operated independently before becoming part of Samaritans Inc. eight years ago. The center was handling an average of 50,000 calls annually before it closed.

Five employees — four of them based in Framingham — were laid off when Samaritans decided to consolidate its operations in its Boston offices. Most of the 100 Framingham-based volunteers chose not to take up the organization’s offer to serve out of the Boston site.

News of the closing spread throughout the region’s nonprofit organizations, which “most likely knew there would be a gap in services and capacity,” Davis said. “United Way of Tri-County stepped up.”

Roberta Hurtig, executive director of Samaritans Inc., disputed the contention that there was a gap in coverage after the Framingham call center was closed.

“The services in MetroWest have been delivered uninterrupted,” Hurtig said. “We can deliver services from wherever, in running an efficient phone, chat, and text operation. The only void created was, unfortunately, when a few people lost their jobs. Volunteers were given the opportunity to continue to serve, but a number have chosen not to. We will continue to answer the local Framingham crisis line.”

Samaritans had previously applied for funding from the United Way of Tri-County to support the Framingham center but was denied, Hurtig said.

She also warned against duplicating services in difficult economic times. “No nonprofit wants to be in competition for philanthropic dollars,” she said.

United Way of Tri-County’s president and chief executive officer, Paul Mina, said his organization already has the infrastructure for a crisis line, which was set up for the 2-1-1 services information program. It announced plans to open the Call2Talk center last month.

Call2Talk will be accredited by the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a network that also includes Samaritans Inc., Mina said. And his organization has plans to expand. A group of older Call2Talk volunteers has started a subgroup called TeleCheck to reach out to local seniors who are isolated.

One of the longtime volunteers is Peter Robinson, a Framingham resident who logged more than 4,500 hours on the Samaritans phone system over more than 15 years.

“The people that I worked with, the staff and volunteers in the Framingham branch, were great people,” Robinson said. “Most people who volunteer do so because of the desire to give back. Why they stay is because of the relationships they make along the way.”

Although Samaritans provides a worthwhile service, it is important to support volunteerism in local communities, Robinson said.

“I think the Boston Samaritans is very Boston-centric, and always has been,” Robinson said. “I don’t believe they place the value they should on MetroWest and on suburbia.”

“My perspective is that there will never be enough resources and help lines and crisis lines’’ to meet the demand, Davis said.

“There’s an added value when you are calling a local number and you get a peer connection. It sends a huge message, locally, that people from your area understand and support you,’’ she said.

About 500 Massachusetts residents die by suicide each year, and another 4,000 are hospitalized for self-inflicted injuries, according to the state Department of Public Health. Samaritans agencies in Massachusetts responded to 154,000 crisis calls annually, according to the department.

Assisting individuals who call a suicide prevention line is not always easy.

“It’s complicated — to just sit there and listen to someone else’s pain and turmoil without judgment, without your own spin or judgment,” Davis said. “Hopefully, a caller gets to a place where they feel validated and heard, not judged.”

Although Call2Talk’s infrastructure exists, the United Way agency said it is seeking donations to get the program up and running. Supporters may send checks with “Call2Talk” in the memo line to the United Way of Tri-County, 46 Park St., Framingham, MA 01702, or donate online at www.uwotc.org.

Potential volunteers can contact Davis at 508-370-4857 or eileen.davis@uwotc.org.

John Swinconeck can be reached at johnswinc@ gmail.com.
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