“Downhearted … distressed … depressed? Let CONTACT Help You.”
On Nov. 15, 1970, these words on a billboard heralded a new tele-ministry in Harrisburg. On that date, the first class of 60 volunteers were commissioned at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. After the commissioning, the president of CONTACT Harrisburg, the Rev. Robert E. Larson, Jr., crossed the street to the PA Churches United Building and answered the helpline’s first call. Almost 50 years later, CONTACT Helpline, as it is now known, has answered more than a million calls, from people reaching out for emotional support and those seeking connections to human-services information and referrals.
Rev. Larson is a local. He grew up in Harrisburg and attended John Harris High School. After eight years away in college and seminary and two years as an assistant pastor in Boston, he married his wife, Dottie. In 1967, a position as assistant pastor of Pine Street Presbyterian Church offered a return to his hometown.
Larson was inspired to establish a CONTACT office in Harrisburg when his family attended a pastors’ conference in Virginia in 1968. After a presentation by Alan Walker, the founder of Lifeline in Sydney, Australia, the Larsons were invited to view a movie about Lifeline, which provides 24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention by telephone. Impressed by their work, Larson then met with Walker for guidance on how to start a service like it back home. He learned that there was already a committee for CONTACT, as Lifeline had become known in the United States, in Nashville, Tenn. Walker advised his new friend to get in touch with them for help. Larson says he returned home, “Pretty well set to do this.”
He met with Chuck Dorsey, the director of the Harrisburg Council of Churches, and George Frank, a local Methodist pastor, to consider developing a CONTACT office. Dorsey worked with the Council of Churches to endorse the idea and the three formed a steering committee. By the spring of 1970, the group was ready to invite volunteers to start their training program. Harrisburg Area Community College hosted the training. According to Larson, “Training got off to a fine start with five great presenters.” It was completed by the fall of 1970. Larson said that he was especially pleased by the wide ecumenical representation among the first class of volunteers.
Recognizing how his church members were often hesitant to share private information with their pastor, Larson said that he knew that anonymity should be the primary component of the Helpline. Volunteers pledge confidentiality with callers and relate to them in a compassionate, nonjudgmental manner through active listening. In this safe environment, callers can trust the CONTACT volunteers to listen and help them find resources to address “the universal and continuing problems of loneliness, isolation, lack of purpose and conflict.”
CONTACT has now supported south-central PA communities through five decades of challenges, including the Hurricane Agnes flood, the Three Mile Island emergency, the 9/11 attacks, the 2008 Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic. Originally relying on paper and pencil data collection and Rolodexes, CONTACT now accesses a comprehensive, computerized database of resources.
With today’s cloud phones, callers from across the country are able to reach out to CONTACT for emotional listening support, especially from areas where mental health services are limited. CONTACT originally served Dauphin, Perry and Cumberland counties. As the Capital Region’s PA 211 provider since 2011, CONTACT now serves 11 Central PA counties. CONTACT also assists the 33-county Eastern PA Continuum of Care, assessing callers’ needs for rent assistance, shelter or housing to prevent homelessness. In addition, CONTACT answers the PA Safe Haven Baby Line, which has saved 47 newborns since its inception. CONTACT also collects relevant data to determine areas of unmet need in the region and partners with local agencies such as United Way of PA to increase health and human resources to underserved populations.
CONTACT is preparing a yearlong agenda to celebrate its 50th anniversary. It will start with a Virtual Kickoff on Nov.19, including speakers from various stakeholders and a silent auction. There will be monthly topics on social media, as well as small events and a 50th Anniversary Appeal. CONTACT hopes to hold a culminating celebration in November 2021.
Reflecting on CONTACT’s 50 years, Rev. Larson said that he is grateful for what remains the same about CONTACT Helpline today. It is a confidential, nonjudgmental place to turn for listening and a gateway to human services.
To learn more about CONTACT Helpline, visit their website.
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