In the beginning, the man on the other end of Norma Bowman's telephone talked about problems he was having making his home accessible for a wheelchair. He told her that he was a Vietnam War veteran and that his health was deteriorating from the effects of Agent Orange.
She listened patiently, and as their conversation continued in two separate calls, it became clear to her that the man also was afraid of dying.
"He knows he's terminal, and he's in pain," she said. Thanks to his calls and her contacts, the veteran knows where to get help with his home construction.
But she didn't stop there.
Ms. Bowman has contacted other veterans groups that can offer counseling and friendship.
"He wants to be with his peers," she said.
Ms. Bowman works for First Call for Help, a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week, statewide information and referral service that helps people with problems get in touch with agencies to assist them. The service has a staff of 23, including nine volunteers.
The service was started in 1962 by the Health and Welfare Council and is supported today by the United Way. The calls it receives range from people needing help in paying bills to parents worried about a child's drug addiction.
Ms. Bowman began at First Call for Help 15 years ago. She worked the first year as a volunteer but since then has worked as a paid information referral specialist. She's one of the voices who answers the phone.
When she began, Ms. Bowman recalls hearing mostly from people who wanted the names of agencies for help with untangling business problems. But for the last five or six years, Ms. Bowman has seen a change.
"People are looking for food and shelter. They are leaning more toward those needs," she said.
Joan Biegeleisen, the director of First Call for Help, agreed. "Today, people are just hanging on," she said. "They are trying to pay the mortgage or the rent and keep the lights and gas on. Or they may already be homeless.
"And we get lots and lots and lots of requests for food."
These days, a lot of desperate people are calling. From June HTC to June 1991, more than 27,000 called, an increase of 4,000 from the same period a year earlier, Ms. Biegeleisen said.
Counselors direct people to agencies or other contacts offering help for those with financial, legal, personal, health or family problems. Sometimes they just listen to those who need someone to talk with.
"We have a conversation with people and try to help them see the options that are available to them," Ms. Biegeleisen said. "People in a crisis don't have a lot of control in their lives. We try to give back power and control."
Not every request is easy to fill. If the request is for emergency shelter, for instance, the caller may be out of luck by noon.
"The shelters fill up fast," Ms. Biegeleisen said. "We might be talking to a woman who has three children and who is already on the streets. We try to think of other options for her. We ask where she stayed last night and then offer to call that person for her. We ask about relatives or friends she can stay with."
Usually the person will answer repeatedly each suggestion that is offered with a "no." The First Call For Help staff member or volunteer will keep offering options.
"Eventually, they will say, 'Yes. OK.' "
"It's a Band-Aid approach, but it will put a roof over their heads for the night," she said.
It also means that in the morning, the person will have to hustle early for a place to stay.
First Call For Help is not a panacea for every problem, the director said. For example, sometimes newly unemployed people want instant solutions to the money problems they may be experiencing for the first time.
"People think we have more power than we do. Sometimes we have to say, 'I am sorry, that is not available.' "
If you need assistance with solving a problem and are unsure where to turn, call First Call For Help. Its numbers:
* If you live in the Baltimore area: 685-0525.
* Toll-free from outside metropolitan Baltimore: (800) 492-0618.
* For hearing impaired: (410) 685-2159 TDD (9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays).