Live-saving Crisis Clinic could use a little saving by the community

The Crisis Clinic of Thurston and Mason Counties has been a fixture in South Sound since 1972, answering phone calls from people in distress 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

It hasn’t always been easy to keep the record of uninterrupted service alive. Snowstorms, power outages, staffing shortages and funding woes all have reared their ugly heads more than once.

It comes as no surprise that a nonprofit social service operating on a shoestring budget and dependent on volunteers should have to overcome a few crises of its own.

Here’s the latest one: By midyear, the Crisis Clinic will run out of money. Without an infusion of cash, the phone, which at times serves as a lifeline for those consumed by suicidal thoughts, could go dead.

“The community can’t afford to lose the Crisis Clinic,” said clinic program manager Jill Joanis, a mental health specialist who came on board as the only paid employee in August. “It’s a matter of life and death.”

As I sat with Joanis and four Crisis Clinic volunteers at their Olympia office the other day to learn more about their work and financial plight, I could tell she wasn’t being dramatic. Callers on the verge of suicide are not that rare.

“We’re not afraid to talk about suicide,” volunteer Liz Fitzgerald said. “With a lot of suicide calls, they just want the pain to stop, the hurting to stop.”

If a caller already has taken a potentially lethal step – for instance, overdosing on pills – the Crisis Clinic worker will patch the call through to 911 or a medical responder. But in most cases, the callers pull back from the brink after their conversation with someone willing to listen to them without passing judgment.

“We get calls back from people saying: ‘Thank you, you saved my life,’ ” Fitzgerald said.

Part of the Crisis Clinic mission is to empower people in crisis with information and referral services while offering emotional support. Perhaps most of all, the volunteers are trained to be really good listeners.

“People want to be heard,” said Josie Glenn, a 17-year-old high school student who got involved with the Crisis Clinic two years ago to expand her horizons and do something meaningful. “We are listeners. We don’t have an agenda.”

Calls received on the crisis line (360-586-2800) are on the rise as more people fall through the cracks of social service programs suffering from budget cuts. The 8,000 calls handled in 2009 compares with about 5,000 calls three years ago, before the economy went in the Dumpster.

“A lot of people are hungry, have no money and nowhere to go,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re the last straw for them.”

The Crisis Clinic also is used by police, mental health counselors, social workers and others traumatized by their own encounters at work.

“They use us to debrief after difficult cases,” Joanis said.

Not all the work by the Crisis Clinic is behind closed doors, at a confidential location, talking to anonymous callers. The clinic does outreach work, including suicide-prevention work, with South Sound high schools and youth groups, and crisis-intervention training for state employees and others who work with people in crisis.

Volunteers at the Crisis Clinic receive 60 hours of training over a five-week period before they are left on their own to work a four- or eight-hour phone shift. For more information about volunteer training, contact Joanis at 360-586-2888, ext. 103, or

Back to the financial crisis at the Crisis Clinic.

Relying on donations, grants and contracts, the Crisis Clinic is about $50,000 short on its $100,000 annual operating budget, clinic board member John Dziedzic said. Part of the problem is that the nonprofit group still is getting its independent feet on the ground after years under the same operating umbrella as Behavioral Health Resources.

Funding cuts at BHR forced the Crisis Clinic to cut ties with the Olympia-based mental health nonprofit in March. An emergency board formed to keep the clinic open, and through the generosity of 200 community donors, two fundraisers, emergency grants from United Way and the Squaxin Island Tribe and a contract with BHR, the clinic stayed open.

Board members think they will have a more stable financing plan in place for 2011. But the clinic needs an outpouring of donations between now and then to bridge the gap.

Contributions are tax-deductible and can be mailed to CCTMC, P.O. Box 13453, Olympia, WA 98508.

It really is a matter of life or death.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444