Karen Garloch

SupportWorks shutting down after 26 years in Charlotte

Dr. Joal Fischer
Dr. Joal Fischer -- Courtesy of Dr. Joal Fischer

SupportWorks started 26 years ago as one-man operation.

Founder Joal Fischer compiled and updated a website with a comprehensive list of support groups, and he answered phone calls from people looking to connect with others going through similar health and lifestyle challenges.

Over the years, he estimates he talked to 25,000 callers, often referring them to the right place for help and sometimes intervening to avert a potential suicide.

But this month, he’s calling it quits.

At 69, Fischer has several of his own medical problems. “I just can’t do it anymore,” he told me recently. “The body is not willing. I am very much going to miss it.”

Fischer created SupportWorks in 1989 in the final years of his pediatrics practice in Charlotte. “This whole thing started because I couldn’t find support groups for my patients.”

Funding for the nonprofit initially came from grants. Later Fischer and his wife, Debbie Langsam, started a company called Barking Dog Chocolatiers that covered expenses.

Fischer’s website, www.supportworks.org, has listed more than 200 support groups and self-help organizations at one time or another. They’ve included groups for people with all types of cancer, incest victims, gifted children, homosexuals, battered women and compulsive spenders, eaters and gamblers.

Answering the phone was Fischer’s favorite part of the work. Many of the callers were in pain. And it was an honor to “have something to do with them feeling better,” he said.

While Fischer will shut down the phone consulting service later this month, he’ll keep the website up for now, but won’t be updating it. He’d like for someone else to take over. “Anything we have, you can take,” he offered.

Darlene Byrd, who runs the medical library at Novant Health Matthews Medical Center, would also like to see someone take over Fischer’s work.

Byrd, who also takes phone calls and runs Internet searches for people wanting information about medical problems, said she often checked SupportWorks on behalf of her callers. She especially likes the Cancer Resource Guide (http://charlottecancerguide.org), with many sources, including where to find wigs.

Byrd and Fischer often consulted on each others calls. “Joal would have a patient on the phone, and he would get me on the phone and say, ‘Let me introduce you to Darlene.’ Back and forth. It was a mutual thing.

“If there were somebody that wanted a very worthwhile project they could do from home, this is it,” Byrd said. “We would collaborate with them like we’ve done with Joal.”

For information

▪ SupportWorks: www.supportworks.org, 704-331-9500.