SUMMIT—When her schizophrenic uncle moved in with her family, 13 year-old Gina not only learned about hallucinations and voices, but also about compassion and humor. Now, more than thirty years later, with three teens of her own, the Summit mom says her “unconventional” childhood and household shaped her teen years in a way she never could have imagined.
“My mom would call my brothers and me downstairs to help look for Uncle Johnnie’s head – under the bed, behind the furniture,” laughed Wood. “He would be screaming that he didn’t see his head when he looked in the mirror. His hallucinations would send him into a panic.”
Wood’s family ritual of helping Uncle Johnnie search for his head was just one of the many ways she was involved in calming and caring for her mentally ill uncle – experiences that taught her empathy, patience, and compassion and inspired her to sign up one year ago to help others in need by serving as a CONTACT We Care crisis hotline volunteer. “It is so rewarding!” she exclaimed about her volunteer work for the award-winning Westfield-based statewide hotline. “Not everyone has a family to turn to for help.”
Wood’s household expanded once again, when only a year after taking in Uncle Johnnie, her mother’s close friend died and left an orphaned son. “My 15-year-old “brother” Joseph moved in with us,” said Wood.
“My parents were always giving – their time, their money, their home,” said Wood. “The best gift they ever gave us kids is that they didn’t put an emphasis on materials things.”
“Even though it wasn’t easy and I didn’t want to have friends come over, I’m thankful for the experience growing up with Uncle John,” said Wood, who substitute teaches for the Summit public schools, St. Vincent’s in Madison and Morris Catholic High School in Denville. “I think I can deal with people and understand them much better because I grew up understanding my uncle’s mental illness. I learned how to see the situation from the other person’s point of view.”
That ability serves Wood well as she answers calls from men, women and teens throughout the state who are dealing with myriad challenges and problems. “I haven’t come across any calls that I wasn’t trained to handle,” said Wood. “After a year on the line, I feel like I have developed a rapport with the callers. For so many of the callers, we are their only contact… their only place to turn.”
Wood, a self-described lover of learning, earned a bachelor’s degree in business and marketing from St. Mary’s College in Indiana, an MBA from Iona College in New York, and a teaching certification from the College of St. Elizabeth in Morristown.
“At first I thought – 12 weeks of training in order to volunteer on the hotline?! Why so long? But I realized it needs to be that long because there is so much to learn!” CONTACT’s hands-on, interactive training includes classes on active listening, grief, mental illness, and suicide. The program is designed to develop each volunteer’s ability to listen actively, assess a caller’s needs and provide empathy and support.
“The training classes are so supportive – by the end you’re like one big happy family,” said Wood.
Wood, who married her college sweetheart Andrew, said that growing up with Uncle Johnnie colored her world in so many ways. “It made me definitely appreciate what I have – that my children are healthy.” It also helped her in picking her husband. Wood said the day she brought Andrew home from college to meet her family for the first time; she was struck by his compassionate response to her uncle. “Andrew’s eyes filled up. He was so kind to Uncle John. I knew then that he was a keeper.”
Wood hopes to have her husband join her on the CONTACT crisis line in a few years when their sons Andrew Jr., 18, and twins Eric and Brendan, 16, go off to college. At that point she plans to return to school in order to become a guidance counselor. “I’ll always make time for CONTACT, though. It’s so rewarding.”
For more information about volunteering for CONTACT We Care or to register for the upcoming February Training Class, visit the website www.contactwecare.org or call 908-301-1899.
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