Couple marks years of EARS

There were 16,305 calls taken at the Contact EARS help line last year.
NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- Some might say that Ruth and Calvin Ray are good listeners.
For the past 25 years, the Neshannock Township couple has spent time each week taking calls at the Contact EARS Helpline, the 24-hour-a-day assistance and referral service in New Castle.
Each have logged the most hours of any volunteers in the organization, with Mrs. Ray at 13,500 hours and her husband at 14,000 hours answering the help line.
The couple had little idea they would become longtime volunteers at Contact EARS when they signed up for crisis line specialist training in 1981.
They moved to Lawrence County just five years earlier from Alliance, Ohio, when Calvin Ray, a supervisor at Penn Power, now First Energy, was transferred.
Getting involved
Ray was interested in learning more about "active listening," a technique used by the telephone workers where they don't judge but empathize with the callers, and more about the various agencies in the community to which callers could be referred.
Mrs. Ray says she really wasn't interested in being a telephone worker, but she wanted to spend time with her husband.
"He was busy at work at that time," she said. "But halfway through the course, I was hooked."
All volunteers must go through a four-week course that meets twice a week. Volunteers learn how to actively listen to callers as well as learn about services and agencies available in the county for people in need.
The couple say they have really enjoyed volunteering for Contact EARS.
"We've been fortunate to have a pretty good life. A lot of people just need somebody they can call and talk to," Ray said.
He thinks the most important quality a Contact EARS volunteer must have is empathy.
"In some cases people call for years. It's a lot of repetition and it can be very difficult hearing the same story over and over again," Mrs. Ray said.
"The only thing that sustains us is that there is a need and we feel it's a worthwhile and useful service," her husband added.
Rising number of calls
Volunteers at the help line answered 16,305 calls last year and that number continues to grow yearly. But the number of volunteers is dwindling, said Shirley Senko, Contact EARS executive director.
The group has just 46 people answering the 24-hour help line, down from 60 in 2002, and last week Contact EARS changed from four-hour shifts to five-hour shifts on a trial basis to help cover all of the calls.
"We are having trouble attracting volunteers," Senko said. "Personally I think people are just volunteering less. I hear that from a lot of agencies."
The agency is also one that doesn't garner much publicity because all calls are confidential, she said.
But, Senko added, the group does provide much needed services in addition to answering help-line calls. It serves at the information line for Alcoholics Anonymous, where people can call for meeting information, and a reassurance line for people who are elderly and/or disabled who have someone call once or twice a day to check in.
Trying times
The Rays say working the help line can be difficult at times, as there is only one person answering the telephone during a shift, and some of the calls can be trying.
"As a volunteer, you have to recognize whose problem it is and help them as best you can when you are there and then you have to leave it there," Calvin Ray said.
The Rays have each been on the Contact EARS board of directors at various times in the last 25 years and both have taught the volunteer course. Not all people in the class decide to become telephone volunteers, but those who do are asked to commit working one shift a week for a year, Mrs. Ray said.
Contact EARS grew out of a hot line started in the early 1970s by seven Lawrence County ministers. The ministers took turns answering calls at their homes for 24 hours, once a week, but found they could not handle the volume of calls. In 1976, the help line became affiliated with Contact, an organization started in Sydney, Australia, by a minister.
Senko said they intend to mark the group's 30th anniversary later this year. No firm plans have been made yet.
Senko said the group could not have survived for the past 30 years without volunteers like the Rays.
"We just appreciate them immensely for all that they do. I'm sure the callers do to," she said.

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