It was 1970 and Eve Cunningham and her husband had just moved to Barrie. After a lifetime of PMQ’s and six kids and a busy military career, Mr. Cunningham had retired from the Department of National Defence and the family moved into its very first “own” house, a century-old workers house of a farm on Alfred St. Their last child was in grade school, their second-last was starting high school and the older four were off growing up.
The Veterans Land Act said it would support the purchase of no less than half an acre so the Cunningham brood joined the community of Alfred St., tucked away in Barrie’s southwest core. And Eve decided to get involved in volunteer work and looked around for something meaningful to do.
She saw a notice announcing the start-up of a new service, a 24 hour call-in line for people who were experiencing all kinds of emergencies. Based on an Australian model, this new telephone line would offer callers a kind, listening ear, no advice, and connection to an anonymous person who wouldn’t judge, or expose them.
Eve Cunningham joined Telecare.
She took several weeks of training, learning from professionals such as doctors, lawyers, police officers, emergency care workers, religious leaders. She learned about drug use, battered spouses, depression, anxiety, anger. And she learned about loneliness.
She listened to speakers from Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon. She learned about addiction and about self-help.
Eve joined 30 people in her first training session. Still working as secretary to the officer in charge of a training school at Base Borden, she put in her name for a weekend shift.
Every weekend Eve would “work” the phone lines overnight, putting in at least eight hours. The Telecare Room was in one of Barrie’s churches. There was a bed, a phone line, a table, a chair. And people needing someone at the other end of the phone.
“We were always told never to give advice or recommendations, but to listen and help people relieve the stress they were feeling. They could talk it out with a safe person who wouldn’t expose them, or judge them. They could be really honest.”
It takes time to learn how to listen, how to give feedback appropriately. It takes time to learn about the kinds of pain people feel. It takes time to listen to a police officer describe a drug overdose, what it would sound like on the phone, and how to appropriately respond to it.
“It was difficult. We had to have an understanding with the police that if someone was in danger of harming themselves and they gave us permission, we could ask the police to respond. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk. Our guarantee to our callers is complete confidentiality and so sometimes even someone who was not well and should be seeking medical or psychiatric attention would only be listened to. We wouldn’t take any action without their permission.”
Eva worked the phones at least eight hours every weekend, and often a mid-week evening or night shift. She did this from 1971 until her husband had a stroke in 1990. That represents at least 12,000 hours of care, concern and commitment from Eve to the outside, anonymous world.
Most of us get involved in a volunteer organization, put in a year or two, a campaign here, an activity there, and then move on to something else.
But it’s the Eve Cunninghams of the world that form the backbone of a volunteer service. When Eve could no longer be away overnight from her husband, she became actively involved in the training of new Telecare workers. She’d help role-play calls and responses with newcomers who had just completed their training. She’d organize, promote, advertise, and support new volunteers. She continued to reach out to others.
And when her husband died in 1996, Eve’s commitment to Telecare kept right on ticking. She’d fill in for other people. She’s work a greater schedule and then she’d schedule work for others.
One of the hardest parts of working a phone line is being alone on one line and having two callers. “Every time you’re the only one on the phones and a second person calls, you have to make a decision about whether to let the call go, or invite a person to call back. It’s a tough decision. Sometimes you’re able on a busy night to get help by calling in someone from the volunteer list.
“From my own experience, it is slow during the day, and just after dark in the early evening and all through the night it’s very busy. Usually there’s just one volunteer available.”
What a huge commitment to offer this service 24/7, finding and training and supporting enough volunteers to make sure that every panic call receives an answer.
For Eve Cunningham, the gift she’s given is equal to the gift she’s received.
“Do I make a difference? there are times when you feel that as the person ends the call, they’ve been helped by it. You can feel their relief that they’ve spoken to someone and had human contact. There are lots of lonesome people.”
Eve says she’s sometimes frustrating because there’s no followup. Seldom do you know whether or not someone has sought help. She says that sometimes people do call back to let volunteers know that their call made a change in their lives and the direction they’re taking.
“Lots of times, though, you end up just wondering…”
Telecare also supports a group of people who live alone or whose families live far away. These people need a daily ‘check-in’ call, just to make sure they’re okay. These calls are made by Telecare volunteers early in the morning. For some people it’s their only contact of the day, the sign that someone cares.
Today, Eve celebrates 32 years of service to Telecare. At 82 years old, what a remarkable gift she continues to give to our community. And when the new training and orientation for Telecare volunteers begins on February 5, Eve’s energy will be part of the introduction for new listeners to people who need a lifeline. On February 5, at 7 pm at Maple Grove Community Church at the corner of Grove and St Vincent streets, new volunteers are invited to listen and register for the Telecare training. You can call 726-7922 to register. Or, you can just show up.
And if you go, and if you take the training, and if you join the team on the phones, what will you give and what will you get?
“I’ve always felt that Telecare was a great benefit to Barrie and I’m not alone in that. It’s a very low-key kind of contribution. Humble. A quiet fulfillment. A feeling that I’ve belonged to something really worthwhile.
“I care as much about Telecare as I did when I joined. It’s been that way all along. It’s because of the group itself… warm, caring people who are as far away as your phone. They’re supportive, kind, caring, non judgemental and unshockable.”
Just like Eve.