Contact Concern volunteer Patty Fletcher. Photo by David Grace.
When she was a teenager, Patty Fletcher seriously considered running away from home.
One day Fletcher, who is blind, was talking to her friend about her feelings.
Her friend happened to be a disc jockey at a local radio station. He gave her information from a public service announcement about an organization that helped people in crisis.
She made a call as a teenager that would forever shape her life.
“I called them and the volunteer stayed on the phone with me for a long time and kept me from making what would have been a really dangerous mistake,” she said. “It’s dangerous for any teenager to run away, but for a blind teenager to run away, it could be deadly in minutes.”
The number she called was 2-1-1, a nationwide abbreviated dialing code for free access to health and human services information and referral.
When 2-1-1 is dialed in a four county area in Northeast Tennessee, a volunteer with Contact-Concern of Northeast Tennessee will be on the other end of the line.
Counties covered by Contact-Concern include Sullivan, Hawkins, Johnson and Hancock counties.
“We’ve been around since 1976,” said Lynn Sorrell, executive director for Contact-Concern. “At that point in time, we were primarily a suicide prevention line. It was founded as a faith-based organization by multiple churches.”
Sorrell said the help line was developed with the assistance of multiple churches from multiple denominations.
Some of the services offered by 2-1-1 include shelter and housing, food programs, financial assistance, clothing, counseling services, support groups, addiction prevention or treatment and battered women’s homes.
Over the last four years, since the Great Recession struck, Contact-Concern has fielded more calls seeking financial help for housing and utilities, Sorrell said.
When someone calls with a request, a volunteer will direct the person to different services that may be able to assist them, whether that be referral to a mental health provider or a service that will assist with an overdue bill.
The nonprofit organization also offers a different service called reassurance program, in which a volunteer from Contact-Concern calls a specific person at a specific time every day to check on them and offer companionship for people who may be lonely.
Contact-Concern is a mostly volunteer organization. Sorrell said about 85 percent of all workers are volunteers.
And the organization is in dire need of volunteers.
Sorrell said when Contact-Concern first started in 1976, they had around 110 volunteers. Years have dwindled down the numbers, and now there are only 30 volunteers. Sorrell is hoping to recruit 30 more volunteers, bringing the number up to 60.
“Since I’ve been here, the number of volunteers has been between 30 and 50,” he said. “We’ve never reached that magic number of 60. I say 60 is a magic number because we have 120 shifts a month and we ask people to do two shifts a month.”
Contact-Concern is open from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. There are four shifts, all of which are four hours apiece.
When a person volunteers, they go through about 20 hours of training before they can take to the phones, with some of the training taking place at home.
One person who became a volunteer for Contact-Concern was Fletcher.
She had been working factory jobs all her life and was growing tired of the job.
In 2006, her daughter was grown and out of the house, and the only responsibilities she had was to herself and a couple of animals.
She sat down one day and reworked her budget and was able to quit her factory job. She then began to search for something more meaningful to do with her life.
“I heard a PSA for Contact-Concern on the very station that I was talking to the DJ at years ago, who is now program director there,” she said. “I heard this PSA and something inside me clicked open and there was that memory (of getting help as a teenager) and I thought, ‘I wonder what I can do for them.’ ”
So she began volunteering, and since that time has logged more than 2,000 hours on the phones. She has also moved up to volunteer coordinator, one of the few paid positions with the organization .
She said the job isn’t for everybody and some people will love it while others will not like it.
If you would like to volunteer, you can call 2-1-1 and say you would like information on how to volunteer. You could also contact Sorrell at (423) 246-2273 or reach Fletcher at (423) 378-4325.
Fletcher feels her work with Contact-Concern is a life calling.
“It is a calling for me,” she said. “It is where God wants me. This is where I’m supposed to be. Contact is my life.”