April 21, 2023

UCalgary Alumni celebrates volunteers

For National Volunteer Week 2023 (April 16-22) we dropped into Distress Centre Calgary where 300-plus volunteers — from post-secondary students to retirees — help save lives
Robyn Romano, MSW'17
Robyn Romano says the volunteers at Distress Centre are "some of the finest people in our community." Robyn Romano

For 15 years, Robyn Romano has toiled away at Distress Centre Calgary: first as a practicum student, then as a relief worker, a midnight crisis-line staffer, director of operations and, as of October 2021, its CEO.

“I often say I grew up at the Distress Centre,” says Romano, MSW’17. “It was my first social-work job and I’ve never left.”

Now, as Distress Centre’s top dog, Romano leads a staff of 150, as well as 300 volunteers who, she is quick to point out on the cusp of National Volunteer Week, are “some of the finest people in our community.”

When COVID-19 first struck, Calgary's Distress Centre had to flip course and staff its crisis lines with only salaried employees, not volunteers. “Our volunteers were not set up to work remotely, nor did we think the pandemic would last long,” says Romano.

“Interestingly, months later, it was our volunteers who pushed us to figure out a system so they could return to the lines. They told us they wanted to support our community but couldn’t do it themselves.”

Today, the second-busiest distress centre in Canada (next to Toronto’s) operates very differently than when Romano first began working there as a Mount Royal University practicum student, where she received a Social Work diploma in 2011. In fact, the pandemic had a radical impact on its structure and systems, as well. In this Q-and-A, Romano talks more about this impact.

Typical scene at Distress Centre

A typical shift at Calgary's Distress Centre where the lines are staffed by well-trained volunteers

Q: Most of your career has been spent at Distress Centre. Why?

A: Work here has changed how I interact with … everything. And everyone. It constantly puts things into perspective.  

Q: After you received your diploma from MRU, why did you pursue your master’s in social work, specializing in leadership in human services at UCalgary?

A: I had a lot of strong mentors at the Distress Centre who pushed me to go back to school. They said, repeatedly, “There is more you’re going to want to do.” They were right. I never thought I’d say this, but I use my master’s every day. The entire two-year program had practical aspects to it that I refer to constantly.

Q: How do people use the Distress Centre?

A: We provide 24-hour crisis support, professional counselling, youth peer support and navigation and referrals through 211 and programs at UCalgary known as SORCe (Safe Communities Opportunity and Resource Centre).

Q: How has the pandemic altered Calgary's Distress Centre?

A: The needs of us as an organization and the needs of our volunteers have changed dramatically. We have several new paid positions, one of which is an engagement co-ordinator. It became obvious, quickly, that we needed to keep our volunteers engaged, which was difficult when we had no clue what may happen tomorrow. Compounding this was a fractured system where some of our volunteers were working remotely, while others were at the centre. 

Q: How did COVID impact the conversations on the crisis lines?

A: In the height of COVID, almost all our calls were about the pandemic. Now, less than one per cent refer to COVID. And our lines would light up right after the 3:30 p.m. public health update or the 6 p.m. news. That said, what we’re seeing now is the fallout of COVID … the impact that isolation has had on mental health, career moves, shifts in our economic landscape, financial changes due to inflation and interest rates, and so forth. 

Q: Tell us about some of the new partnerships that were struck during the pandemic.

A: We spent a year planning a project with the Calgary Police Service and Calgary 911, where non-emergency calls could be diverted from 911 to 211. In 2022, we launched this pilot partnership and co-located some of our 211 staff to sit in the 911 operation centre. Since then, it’s grown to include partners from Alberta Health Services and the Alpha House DOAP team, to the new community mobile crisis response unit with The Alex. I know it sounds cheesy, but we know we can do this better together. I honestly believe we can create new systems of doing and working to better serve Calgarians in crisis when we are all at the table having these conversations together.

Q: What makes an ideal volunteer?

A: The people who make the best volunteers care about their community and have the ability to listen and provide empathy. And connection. The training [for volunteering at the centre, which takes 60 hours] teaches you the rest. That’s where you’ll learn about the top things that you’ll hear on the  lines, what model of crisis intervention we use. Experts teach theory to volunteers in a classroom setting, followed by practical applications through role-playing, plus you’ll leave knowing all the community resources we work with and rely on.

We ask volunteers to work one shift a week and they can choose between the national Talk Suicide Line, local crisis-phone lines, online chat and text and ConnecTeen (by phone, chat, text or email). We serve a diverse community, so we are always looking for a diverse pool of volunteers. It’s a great way for university students to gain some practical experience in an area they may be interested in pursuing academically, but also any community member who wants to make a difference. This is a role where you truly can save lives.

Q: Besides the chaos that COVID initially created at Distress Centre, have there been any positive outcomes?

A: I think more people are talking about mental health issues and other critical matters such as suicide or poverty and the impact that has on community. There are so many areas we can’t control such as inflation, housing prices, rental rates, grocery bills, but we can get more comfortable talking about other big things that face our community right now. For me, it broke down some of the silos and barriers when we started strengthening partnerships with other services in the city.

Q: What books or podcasts influence your leadership style?

A: The philosophies of Brene Brown, Kim Scott and Adam Grant. They all start with caring deeply, showing up and working with different system partners. One of my favourite books is Radical Candor by Kim Scott, and Adam Grant’s podcast, ReThinking, challenges me constantly.


National Volunteer Week, April 16-22, is a terrific opportunity to thank the volunteers in your life. If you’d like more information on how you can make a difference by volunteering with UCalgary Alumni explore here.  If volunteering at Distress Centre Calgary interests you, visit here.

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