Meet the 78-year-old Crisis Text Line counselor

crisis text line

Every week, 78-year-old Nancy Denburg sits in her New Jersey home and spends four to seven hours fielding anxious and desperate texts from strangers.

She's a counselor at Crisis Text Line, a nonprofit startup that she read about in the New Yorker shortly after her husband passed away. "I was looking to do more. I'd like to save the world. I've always been a nurturer," Denburg told CNNMoney.

Crisis Text Line is a new spin on something Denburg has done before: Help those in a moment of crisis. She worked as a hotline counselor from the 1980s until the early 2000s. She then became a trainer and chairperson of the hotline, which was called WISH, or Women in Self Help. She also headed up a rape crisis department at her local hospital.

Crisis Text Line, founded in August 2013 by Nancy Lublin, the CEO of DoSomething.org, is essentially a modern-day crisis hotline. It offers free text message support that's accessible around the clock from 1,500 volunteer crisis counselors. The volunteers go through a rigorous application process, 34 hours of training, and a background check. They're required to commit to at least 4 hours a week of text support.

crisis text line counselor

In June, the nonprofit closed $23.8 million in new funding from backers like Melinda Gates, Steve Ballmer, Pierre Omidyar and Reid Hoffman. More than 20 million messages have been exchanged on the platform; 30% of which are about suicide and depression.

"My opening statement to them is, 'Hi, my name is Nancy. How are things going for you today?' said Denburg, who has four children and eight grandchildren. The goal of any conversation is to change the crisis from hot to cool,"

For Denburg who started volunteering over a year ago, there has been a bit of a learning curve, but it's been a worthwhile one.

Related: Social media and mental health: 'We are more than our profile pictures'

"How could I, at 77, begin to understand the psyche of teenagers and younger people? I felt that [Crisis Text Line] probably would not be interested in someone as old as me," said Denburg. "Then, I had this epiphany: They don't really know how old I am."

Counselors "pick up" texts from a software platform accessible through a computer.

"One texter kept saying 'rn' in the text. To me, 'RN' means a nurse. That texter meant 'right now,'" said Denburg. "With each little nugget that I learn, I feel so much more empowered to be more helpful."

Another source of confusion: "GOT," which Denburg asked a texter about and learned meant "Game of Thrones."

Related: The confidence gap: Can daily text messages help?

She said she's taught herself to be especially careful about inferring too much about someone's sentiment from any particular words used.

"When you hear a voice and hear an inflection, you can hear emotion," she said, noting that she could then respond with something like, "It sounds like you're feeling very sad."

Text messages don't relay that same information: "When somebody says this was just an awful day, you don't know how awful they felt it really was."

Denburg has completed over 100 conversations -- which typically take 40 to 60 minutes -- including one active rescue. That's someone who shows real potential to harm themselves, which is then referred to as a Crisis Text Line supervisor.

Senior citizens make some of the best counselors at Crisis Text Line, according to Michelle Kuchuk, the nonprofit's director of training at the nonprofit.

Lublin also spoke about senior volunteers at the Wired Business Conference in June.

"We have about a dozen of them who are over the age of 70 who are awesome, disproving every myth about older people ... not understanding technology," she said onstage.

As for Denburg, she said that volunteering at Crisis Text Line keeps her feeling young: "It makes me feel very in touch," she added.

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