More than 30 years ago, an 18-year-old University of New Mexico student went to his professors in Albuquerque and told them he was having problems. The professors were too busy to talk and advised him he should go see someone at the student health center.
A few hours later, the young college student went to an off-campus mental health facility, which refused to help him because he didn’t have insurance. Feeling alone and desperate, the young man shot and killed himself.
In response to the tragic suicide, a group of UNM students and professors decided that there needed to be something or someone people could call at any time to talk about their problems. At a time when there were very few crisis centers in the country, Agora was founded. It is still running today.
“They wanted it to be where people could come and talk about whatever is on their mind,” said Molly McCoy-Brack, director of Agora.
McCoy-Brack, who lives in Bosque Farms, first started volunteering 12 years ago after she was widowed and went back to college to get her master’s degree in counseling. She said she was convinced she could get valuable experience as a volunteer at Agora.
“I always heard about Agora, and I knew what it was. When I first started volunteering, I realized the training was amazing, the people were wonderful and the work was rewarding,” she said. “I volunteered for the next 10 years, and I became the professional director two years ago.”
Agora is currently housed in the psychology department on the main UNM campus in Albuquerque, but it provides crisis service state-wide. One phone call can make all the difference,” McCoy-Brack said.
“We get calls about everything you can imagine,” she said. “From people saying they are thinking of committing suicide, to rape or (being) ‘kicked out of my house’ to ‘I stubbed my toe and I just want to talk about it’,” she said. “There isn’t any problem too small or too large to call about.”
A lot of times, McCoy-Brack said, people doubt whether their problem is worthy of picking up the phone and calling a crisis hot-line. Agora’s philosophy is that it’s fine for people to call if they just need to talk.
“I think sometimes it just helps to have someone objective that you can talk things over with and get another viewpoint,” she said. “Someone who will sit and listen to them and not criticize or judge them for what they’re saying and feeling.”
Although the volunteers at the center are not councilors, they are trained to listen to people, help solve problems and give referrals to other agencies. Every volunteer goes through numerous hours of training to help them with listen skills, problem solving skills and crisis intervention.
McCoy-Brack said the volunteers are trained not to give advice because they don’t know the callers and they don’t know what’s best for their lives. Several of the volunteers come from Valencia County.
“If you give them the right advice, they depend on you, and, if you give them the wrong advice, they’re going to be mad at you,” she said. “We try to help people problem solve.”
In most cases, people know the best solutions to their problems, McCoy-Brack said. What Agora tries to do is help the caller weigh the pros and cons of their situation and help unsnarl the knot of the problem.
Every call that comes into the Agora crisis hot-line is different. Sometimes calls can last 10 minutes while others can last up to six hours. By the end of the call, volunteers at Agora hope the caller is feeling a little better about their situation.
“It takes a lot of courage to call a crisis line or to reach out to anybody for help,” McCoy-Brack said. “I really commend people for that.”
Through the 30 years in which Agora has been helping people, the volunteers have had several experiences with some very interesting and grateful people.
Recently, McCoy-Brack said, a man called to ask how to make a ham. The volunteer, a college student, didn’t know, and, as he was looking for a cookbook, the volunteer started asking the caller questions.
As it turned out, the man had just lost his wife of 50 years who had always cooked Easter dinner. He knew he was supposed to have ham, but he didn’t know how to cook it.
“The real issue was that he was lonely,” McCoy-Brack said. “They ended up talking for three hours. The next morning, the caller cooked the ham and brought it in for the volunteers.”
Another memorable caller dates back to the late 1970s when Agora had just opened its phone lines. Every night around 9 o’clock, a boy would call and simply say, “Good night.”
The nightly calls became routine for the volunteers, and they looked forward to hearing from the mysterious caller. The calls continued for several years until, one day, the phone just stopped ringing.
A professor who was the director of the program said a young man had come up to him on campus a number of years later and said, “You don’t know me, but I was the good-night caller at Agora. When I was a little boy, my parents worked and were out of town a lot, and I had a baby sitter who didn’t really like me. So, most nights, if it hadn’t been for Agora, I wouldn’t have had anyone to say good-night to.”
Agora has an extensive list of services, agencies and individuals in the Albuquerque metro area that are available to help. From housing assistance to bereavement support, Agora knows who’s available.
The crisis hot-line number is 277-3031, or appointments can be set up at their offices at 1716 Las Lomas on the UNM campus in Albuquerque.
The service is open to everyone, including the people of Valencia County, McCoy-Brack emphasized.