Staff and volunteers made big plans to roll out a celebration for Agora Crisis Center’s 50 anniversary, but everything, other than a commitment to serve others, came to a halt as the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the nation.

“It’s a huge milestone and we were planning a celebration and a reunion with former volunteers,” said Molly Brack, Agora clinical director. “But more than ever we need to focus on letting people know that while we’re all experiencing a shared trauma and people are feeling isolated and alone, everyone is still part of a connected group.”

Located on The University of New Mexico campus, Agora is one of the oldest crisis centers in the U.S., founded in 1970 in response to the suicide of a freshman student. The student organization relies heavily on volunteers, who go through 40 hours of training to become Crisis Hotline Specialists. Agora staff say their mission, ‘To provide free, confidential, compassionate help to anyone in need of emotional support,’ really defines the work behind the 150 volunteers that keep the center running.

“We get calls about everything from people just wanting to chat about their day to more serious behavioral health discussions that can include depression, anxiety and suicide,” said Kyle Dougherty, Agora associate director.

Brack and Doughtery said due to the University’s period of limited operations in response to the pandemic; day-to-day operations look quite different now. Typically, volunteers work 4-hour shifts around the clock.

“Lately, it’s been a skeleton crew of core volunteers who are self-isolating and feel safe coming in,” Brack said.

“It’s definitely strange compared to what our center usually looks like,” said Alex Tibble, Agora program coordinator. “There aren’t as many people coming and going. Right now, we’re all separated with one volunteer in the back room and one in the main room. We’re definitely not getting the influx of calls we were getting before the period of limited of operations.”

Despite the reduced crew, Agora staff and volunteers remains busy. In March, Brack said volunteers received 1,159 calls, a slight decrease from the center’s typical numbers. However, the center saw a large increase in online chats.

“I’d say the number of volunteers stepping up their commitment to do online chats have made up for the reduced number of volunteers in the center,” Tibble said, “Our volunteers are stuck at home, but they still want to be involved and help people because this is a really stressful time for everyone.”

Tibble is also responsible for overseeing the ABQ Homeless Assistance Helpline. In coordination with the City of Albuquerque, the helpline connects people in need with partner agencies who can provide shelter, food transportation and other personal care.

Doughtery said he’s proud to work alongside the many volunteers who show so much compassion to those in crisis, and that if anything this experience has only made the center stronger.

“Most of our job priorities have shifted to things I don’t think we even considered we’d be doing, and that’s just making sure our volunteers stay healthy and safe as we navigate this situation together,” he said.