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Looking back on 2020: An eventful year for Distress Centre

Looking back on 2020: An eventful year for Distress Centre

Looking back on 2020: An eventful year for Distress Centre

Image: Our 2020 staff and volunteer photo, taken in December. 

Like the rest of the world, 2020 was one of the most challenging years we’ve had in our 50 year history. Thanks to the support and hard work of our staff, volunteers, partners, donors, and supporters, we got through 2020 and are poised to take on 2021, knowing it will still be difficult, but hopeful that there is some light at the end of the tunnel.

As we leave 2020 behind, we want to look back on what turned out to be a year of many challenges, but also, a year filled with optimism, innovation and many positive initiatives that have better prepared our staff and volunteers for 2021.


In January 2020 we were busy preparing to move from our office on 8th Avenue to a beautiful new space just a few blocks away. We took our last crisis call and 211 call at noon on January 31st and then passed our lines over to Canadian Mental Health Association – Edmonton and 211 Edmonton, to ensure there was no disruption to our service. By February 2nd we were taking calls, chats, texts and counselling sessions again, and we officially our doors to the public on February 4th.

img des: A group of people standing in front of a wall with the DC logo, mission and values on it.
A group photo in our old Contact Centre during our move in January.

Thanks to the commitment and cooperation of our staff and volunteers, particularly our moving committee, the move went smoothly.

Unfortunately, just as we started to settle in to our new digs we had to address the growing concern about the spreading coronavirus. A COVID-19 response team was formed.

In January, we began celebrating our 50th Anniversary with the launch of our 50 Stories series. We shared 50 stories over 50 weeks in 2020, looking back on our history from opening as a street level Drug Information Centre in 1970 to the many support services we offer today.

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We also quietly celebrated the 15th Anniversary of 211. It launched in Calgary in 2005.

Listen Up Calgary took place on February 29th, an annual fundraiser organized by Rich and Lauren Paxton. This evening of music would turn out to be our only in-person fundraisers in 2020.


A pandemic was declared for COVID-19 on March 11, 2020. At Distress Centre, the COVID-19 response team was working quickly to address this growing problem. We knew we had to act in the best interest of our staff and volunteers, while ensuring 24 hour support remained available for Calgarians during this incredibly stressful time.

Our empty contact centre after we went fully remote in March.

On March 17th, we closed our office and mobilized our staff to work fully remotely. There was no disruption to services. All of our services have remained available throughout the pandemic, including counselling which moved to phone and video support. Our programs at SORCe, which moved to phone support and eventually opened back up for in-person support re-opened under strict COVID protocols.

We quickly saw demand for 211 increase and COVID-19 became a top concern for crisis and 211 contacts.


In April we celebrated Distress Centre’s 50th Anniversary. Distress Centre first opened its doors as the Drug Information Centre on April 14th, 1970. To commemorate the day we released a video: 50 Years of Answering the Call for Help – created by ZGM Modern Marketing Partners.


In May we held our virtual Annual General Meeting on the day we would have hosted our 50th Anniversary event which we had to cancel. At our AGM we welcomed 4 new Board members and Janet Segato remained as our Board Chair for another year. We also launched our 2019 Report to the Community.

Crisis Team Lead Dakota Douglas, working remotely in April.

We experienced significant challenges supporting volunteers who wanted to respond remotely. This resulted in paid staff responding to the majority of our contacts, at great cost to the agency. After nearly three months of remote work, many staff were feeling isolated working from home so we decided to enter Phase 1 of our Re-Entry Strategy in June. This allowed those who wanted to return to the office and the contact centre, to do so on a rotating basis.

Scheduling contact centre shifts was a constantly evolving task in 2020 and a special thanks goes out to our Scheduling Coordinator who managed the challenge.


In July, we continued moving forward in our Re-Entry Strategy, seeking to find a balanced, long term solution as we knew the pandemic was far from being resolved. At this time, we also saw a huge increase in demand for 211, as people called in looking for masks before the mandatory mask order came into effect in August.

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Suicide-related contacts had been higher than the previous years throughout 2020, but in August we saw those numbers climb significantly. In August we saw a 55% increase in suicide-related contacts compared to August 2019. That trend would continue for the rest of the year.


In September we had planned on celebrating 10 years of our annual Lend An Ear fundraising event. Since we couldn’t have an in-person event, we instead declared September Lend An Ear Month and spent the month revisiting some of the great moments we’ve shared at Lend An Ear since 2011. We’re grateful to the past speakers and MCs who shared video greetings with us.


Discussion about self-care and creating a community of care had been ongoing since we’d embedded the concepts into our Strategic Plan in 2019. In October, our Executive Director, Jerilyn Dressler shared her thoughts on creating a personalized self-care plan and staff were asked to develop their own plan.

The SORCe lobby under construction in December.

The increase in 211 contacts and suicide-related contacts had continued. By November 30th we saw a 71% increase in 211 contacts from January 26th when we received our first COVID-19 related contact. Overall we experienced a 37% increase in suicide-related contacts for that time frame.

SORCe reopened to in-person services in November with strict safety protocols in place.


New restrictions were put into effect by the Alberta Government to curb the rising COVID-19 cases, including a mandatory work from home order. Most staff went back to working fully remotely, with just a few remaining in our contact centre to continue to deliver crisis and mental health services and better support our volunteers.

We held our annual Christmas party virtually, wrapped up our 50 Stories series and said goodbye to 2020, a challenging year, but one that also made us all appreciate just how critical Distress Centre is to the health and well-being of our community.

We’re honoured to have served Calgarians through an ongoing global pandemic and we will continue to do so in 2021.

Distress Centre could not have survived this year without the support of our staff, volunteers, Board and donors. We are stronger together and we will get through this together. Thank you and stay safe in 2021.

In the spirit of respect, reciprocity and truth, Distress Centre Calgary would like to honour and acknowledge Moh’kinsstis, and the traditional Treaty 7 territory and oral practices of the Blackfoot confederacy: Siksika, Kainai, Piikani, as well as the Îyâxe Nakoda and Tsuut’ina nations. We acknowledge that this territory is home to the Métis Nation of Alberta, Region 3 within the historical Northwest Métis homeland. Finally, we acknowledge all Nations – Indigenous and non – who live, work and play on this land, and who honour and celebrate this territory.