SCOTCH PLAINS—In a 30-year career as a federal probation officer working with drug and alcohol addicts, Charles Herman of Scotch Plains learned to measure success by the small changes he observed in his individual cases.
That’s what enabled him to persevere and obtain enormous satisfaction in a field that most others flee after a few short years.
So three years ago, as he approached the mandatory retirement age of 57, he was anxious to discover an equally challenging and rewarding experience. That’s when he signed up to volunteer for CONTACT We Care’s 24-hour caring and crisis hotline in Westfield.
“I had read an article about CONTACT years before and always considered volunteering,” said the avid Yankees and Giants fan. “Volunteering to answer calls to the hotline has filled a void in my life and I get tremendous satisfaction from the experience.”
The similarities between his probation work and the hotline aren’t lost on Herman, who is quick to point out that many callers to the hotline may also struggle with making changes in their lives. “Some callers are stuck in place and struggle just to get through the day. Others are very self-destructive, like an addict. There is the same concern about whether they might hurt themselves or commit suicide,” said Herman.
“It’s very gratifying when a caller begins the conversation feeling upset and somewhere during the call begins to feel better,” he said. “By the end of the call they often say they have a plan and can move forward.”
Born and raised in Newark and a graduate of Memorial High School, it was a traumatic experience at his senior class prom that most directly prompted Herman’s career choice and subsequent volunteer work. “When we were all hanging out on the beach after the prom someone overdosed and died,” describes Herman. “I felt terribly guilty – felt I should have been able to do something to save him.” It’s easy to see the memory still haunts Herman. “People with addiction problems need help as much as anyone who is physically injured,” he added.
After earning a graduate degree in criminal justice from Sam Houston State University in Texas, Herman landed a job as a probation officer with the State of Florida. “I went through graduate school on a “leap” (law enforcement assistance program) grant,” he explained. “The stipulation was that I would work two years in law enforcement upon graduating.”
He successfully managed his initial caseload of more than 100 drug addicts by being tremendously organized and committed. “It was a way to make up for the things I might have done wrong with regard to that night on the beach.”
Herman spent the next 28 years working in New York City for the Foley Square office of the Federal Probation Department. “I got tremendous rewards having people complete their supervision.”
A diabetic since age 24, Herman is quick with a laugh and says that humor plays an important role in his life. “When I was first diagnosed, I was sure I would be dead in a few years. I broke off my engagement because I didn’t want my fiancé to watch me go through that. I regret that I didn’t tell her what I was thinking.”
Herman’s companion of twenty years, Eileen Rebeck, died four years ago of colon cancer. He never had children the way he hoped and planned. But long-term friendships that began in middle and high school bring him tremendous pleasure, as does world travel, sports, and bicycling.
“Some of the addicts I worked with over the years would say, ‘you’re not an addict – you don’t understand.’ But I learned through my career and my experience on the hotline, you can relate on the level of feelings. I know what it feels like to be depressed, in pain, and alone. That’s the way you can connect with anyone who calls CONTACT’s crisis hotline. You don’t necessarily have to have the same heartache and grief in your life. But I understand because I’ve had those feelings in other situations.”
For more information about volunteering of supporting CONTACT We Care, call 908/301-1899 or visit the organization’s website at www.contactwecare.org.
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