Closure of Distress Centre major blow

First published:
Jan. 2, 2002

There are times when several different news stories over a period of time become noteworthy. As single news events, they can be easily passed over. But collectively, they create a meaningful pattern and raise some important questions.

Just before Christmas, there was an amazing story about Joanne Beach, the wife of Cobourg Alliance Church pastor Lee Beach.  Last spring, with the help of June West, an appeal was made to the community looking for soccer shirts to take to Africa. Like children in Canada, hundreds of African kids love soccer. However, they cannot afford shirts for the teams. Mrs. Beach was able to gather 350 shirts generously donated by residents. With a few hockey bags donated by local businesses, she trucked off to Guinea and Ivory Coast.

Mrs. Beach tells some pretty incredible first-hand accounts of the extreme poverty in the communities. Children are unable to afford shoes, let alone soccer boots. What is equally touching are the stories of children overcoming these conditions through their love of sports. Fishing nets would become soccer nets for the kids.

“To try and picture what it is like you would understand why they can’t afford uniforms. They can barely afford food and electricity,” she said in an interview.

It is marvelous to see how our community responds to this kind of need. Northumberland County residents are famous for their generosity and volunteerism.

Unfortunately, things don’t always work out. This was the case for the Northumberland Distress Centre. It provided emergency help over the phone for many residents – lonely seniors, upset parents, angry teens and abused children.

As of the end of the year, this valuable resource was closed. The reason given was tough economic times, according to board spokesperson Grahame Woods. The volunteers need to raise $30,000 a year to match the contribution made by United Way. Add to this the job of co-ordinating volunteers to man telephones for 12 hours per day, seven days per week. It is daunting to say the least.

The Distress Centre began as the Youth Help Line after a local mother; Susan Hamilton, wanted to create a service for young people after a friend’s son committed suicide. She felt this kind of phone help line might have saved his life. It began in Cobourg with a three-hour program after school in 1988. Services expanded to provide more hours of service and include a broader spectrum of ages. It also got a toll-free number for residents across the county. By 2000, the help line was getting 2,000 calls annually.

It may seem like a bit of a stretch to look at these two stories and see how they are connected, but the link exists in this way. How is it that as a community we can find the resources to provide shirts for African children, but we cannot find the money to support the distress line? Let’s be clear: this is not about ethnicity or the need to support international aid. It is about where we place our community resources. The same question was asked when the fundraising was being done for the new hospital during the United Way campaign. And we witnessed the results.

This is about the values we express, almost unconsciously, as a community.

Compassion is tour hallmark as individuals and as a community. There is no greater measure of ourselves as when we are able to leave our egocentric world behind and find the heart to help someone else.  When we each take it upon ourselves, the overwhelming burden of responsibility for doing something about the condition around us, we are on a much higher path.

The ways we do this is so varied it would be a Herculean task to try and enumerate them all. From Boy Scouts to minor hockey to meals-on-wheels, people donate time and money to make sure our youth; our families and our seniors are well served.

But in the midst of all this, Northumberland must find a middle path that balances the needs of all members of the community. The various organizations that raise money are phenomenal. It seems like every week two or three groups are looking for funds.

But when something like the Distress Centre must fold, we have to feel a sense of failure. Not the organization, but we feel it as a community. We have let some people down by not providing such a critical service. The distress line was a high profile example, but there are many that don’t make it into the pages of local newspapers. They simple stop providing services and those who use them must find something else to replace it.

If we are truly generous and giving, then surely it must extend our ability to co-operate and find a solution to this persistent problem of competition for donations and volunteers.

Let’s hope it does not take another tragedy to make us regret this loss and do something.

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