From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

Gentle Words

He was another new face, handsome, wide smile and sparkling eyes. He wanted to volunteer his time in a new way. Brian had shared his time at the homeless shelter, providing transportation and assistance to people with disabilities and befriending those who were most isolated. Now he was ready for a different kind of challenge—he was interviewing for crisis-line volunteer training.

Brian was nervous about the interview, not knowing what to expect or even if he would be right for the job. He answered all the questions honestly. A positive attitude was one of the strengths he felt he would bring to the task. When asked why he wanted to do this type of work, he told the interviewer that he wanted to give back to the community. He had so many blessings in his life—a good job with a major insurance company, family, friends and great coworkers. He knew there were many people who didn’t have someone to turn to when life became overwhelming. He wanted to be the voice that answered that two A.M. call. He wanted to be the heart that listened.

Brian was accepted into the eighty-hour training program. He couldn’t believe how much work was involved. He had reading assignments with written exercises that were graded every week. It was difficult. There was classroom training, role-playing and phone-room training. He learned about mental illness, addiction and suicide. Brian doubted that he could get through it. He questioned his abilities. Could I be the one to help? Could I indeed make a difference?

As a trainee, Brian monitored calls handled by experienced crisis line volunteers. He was highly nervous about one caller, Audrey, who had schizophrenia. With a serious mental illness, Audrey lived on the fringes of life. Medication didn’t have much impact on her delusions and auditory hallucinations.

Audrey called the hotline frequently, and her mood was generally angry and unpredictable. She yelled at volunteers, accused them of bizarre actions and routinely berated everyone for being inept and decidedly useless. The volunteers, however, understood her illness and had a great appreciation for the fact that answering her calls was a form of support for Audrey that kept her in the community rather than in a state institution.

Brian dreaded his first call from Audrey. He wanted to do the best he could for her, but he wasn’t sure he could handle her. When her call came in, even the trainers were surprised. Audrey was a lamb. Brian’s gentle words and interaction both soothed and brightened her. After Brian passed his final tests and started on a regular weekly shift, the magic continued for the next four years.

Over time, Audrey figured out when Brian worked, and it was rare that she missed calling when he was on duty. Brian’s shift-partners would say “hello” and receive an angry blast, and yet when Brian would answer in the same way, Audrey was charmed. No matter how psychotic she became, Brian could always interact with her in a positive and upbeat manner.

With Audrey and so many others, Brian brought a sense of hope, mixed with kindness, respect and abiding compassion for those facing crises of the spirit. The fears he held about his effectiveness were groundless. He was very successful in this venture, and he went on to train new crisis-line volunteers, teaching the skills that were second nature to him.

Brian died at age twenty-nine after battling cystic fibrosis his entire life. In the end, his body gave out, although his spirit remained strong. Audrey noted his absence while Brian was in the hospital for an extended time, and she called the staff at the crisis center to find out what was happening to her special friend.

When she was told about his disease and his fight for life, she became very quiet. “I will pray for him every day,” she said slowly. With unmistakable concern she added, “In spite of my not-so-wonderful life, I believe in God. I believe because I know Brian.” That powerful message and moment of clarity was indeed a gift from Brian.

The staff dreaded telling Audrey the news about Brian’s death and letting her know that this gentle light had moved on. Several days after the funeral, the associate director, who had delivered the eulogy, called Audrey to deliver the somber message. She met the news bravely, thanked the director for keeping her informed and tried to say good-bye, but it was evident that she was struggling with her emotions. Seeking to comfort her, the staff person read part of the eulogy to her—an old Native American quotation: “On the day you were born you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life in such a way that when you die the world cries and you rejoice.”

After a long pause, Audrey whispered, “Amen.”

Karen Zangerle

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