If you’re on the edge, don’t see a way out, don’t know how to face the future, dedicated volunteers like Maria Boruta at the Kelowna Crisis Line are ready to listen 24-7 at 250.763.9191

As a Crisis Line volunteer Maria’s voice is her signature. Our first meeting is on the phone when I call to set up an interview. Her warmth and empathy are evident from that first hello. Later, at the Kelowna Community Resources office, I am greeted by a blue- eyed blond, fit and fashionable, whose radiant smile exudes vitality and the joy of life. A woman who playfully reversed the numerals on her cake from 75 to 57 at her recent birthday celebration and almost got away with it.

“Life is all about attitude. I love having fun and I appreciate life,” she says.

Once on the line, however, Maria is all business. She settles into the office chair with a massive resource binder open for quick access. “This one day a week belongs to me and my callers,” she says.

A day as a Crisis Line volunteer has rewards and challenges. “There was joy the day someone called and said they just got out of the hospital and I had saved their life,” says Maria. “Or getting positive feedback from the RCMP when I stayed on the line during a suicide in progress, sometimes an hour or more, until help arrived.

“And then there’s the day you read in the newspaper about a suicide and you know the person could have called and didn’t.”

The Kelowna Crisis Line has been serving the community since October 1976 and in 2001 was honoured as the Vounteer Organization of the year at the City of Kelowna Civic Awards.Volunteers provide short-term crisis intervention when a caller is unable to cope with a situation. Volunteers offer empathy, information and referrals to community services to empower individuals to meet their own needs and find solutions.

What does she hope people will understand about those who call the Crisis Line?  “They are lost and need people to look out for them,” she says. Maria hopes the public will not be judgmental about those who are depressed, mentally ill or on drugs and alcohol. “They are the victims,” she says.

Encouraged by a friend, Maria signed on, armed with high school graduation from Burlington, Ontario, retail experience in Toronto and Surrey Eaton’s fashion and cosmetics and, perhaps most importantly, raising three sons. She enthusiastically completed the 50 hours of required training, which included instruction in communication and specific crisis line preparation. “The training was excellent,” she says, “and during that time I realized this is what I was looking for as a volunteer.”

For the first few days on the line new volunteers are audited by those with more experience. “You never feel you have enough training, but what’s important is what you do with the training and the guidelines they give you.”

The Okanagan Suicide Awareness Society says that suicide rates are highest in April and the summer months June and July. They emphasize that suicidal behaviour is a result of a medical condition and not a sign of weakness or character defect. And the biggest cause of suicide among college students is mental illness, usually depression.

But it’s not all about suicide. “The age range of the callers I get is from 15 to 65.” Sometimes she gets multiple calls from the same teen struggling with drugs, alcohol and family issues. “I tell them to never, never give up on themselves,” she says and is thrilled if they finally accept referral to an agency.

“But I am also getting an increasing number of calls from retired people who feel anxious, lonely, useless and depressed. They don’t know what to do with themselves now they are no longer working,” says Maria.

As for unwinding after her shift? Maria says she stays around the office to chat with others, then takes a few minutes of quiet time to think through the past five hours.

Maria encourages everyone to be involved in the community in some way and to be vigilant about their own neighbourhood. “Don’t be afraid to help. It’s a privilege to be able to help people. I’m a drop in the ocean. My contribution is little, but put all the drops together and we can make a difference.”

Here is one 75-year-old not likely to slow down soon. “I’ll continue to volunteer for as long as I can,” she says. The voice of an angel. ~Patti Shales Lefkos