An article in yesterday's Montgomery Weekly incorrectly reported the telephone number for Chabad Lubavitch of Montgomery County, an organization focused on outreach and education in the Jewish community. The correct telephone number is 301-983-4200. (Published 01/21/2000)

When Lydia Laskin moved to Rockville a year ago, she was eager to volunteer as a phone buddy. But she couldn't find a program and didn't know how to get started.

Then the insurance company consultant got a mailing from Sherrie Apple soliciting volunteers for community projects, and Laskin learned about Apple's quiet network of phone buddies, people who call others who need someone to talk to. Laskin saw a chance to make a connection.

"Being a phone buddy gives me a strength and an energy," said Laskin, 37. "It is something that is not only in my personal life but carries over into my work."

Apple, program director for Chabad Lubavitch of Montgomery County, an organization focused on outreach and education in the Jewish community, fell into the role of matching people by accident. In her job, she found herself getting phone calls from people experiencing problems, so she began compiling names and numbers. Others were offering to volunteer anywhere they could help.

What started out with a few people talking back and forth has turned into a collection of more than 20 who chat, and occasionally visit each other, to share worries and victories. Some people talk often, others only when there's a specific problem. But they always know there is someone there for them.

"Phone friends has a great potential for good," said Apple. "It shows what can happen when people reach out to help one another."

Apple, 48, said she has not been able to find another agency in the area that offers a phone buddy program. Her network, she said, is helping bring people together, many from different backgrounds. In cases where people have severe problems, she connects them to county social service agencies and other organizations.

In coming months, Apple hopes to expand her network of phone buddies and has received offers, and money, from individuals who would like to help her computerize her efforts.

In Laskin's case, Apple knew she had a match. For Laskin, the buddy network was the opportunity she had been looking for. "I don't have time to visit people," Laskin said. "It is much easier to communicate by phone."

One of the first people she contacted was Peter Weiss, 39, of Rockville. Weiss's father, Donald, had contacted Apple, expressing a desire to have someone get in touch with his son, who has recovered from childhood leukemia but is dealing with some of the side effects of his treatment.

Weiss, a student at Montgomery College, said he enjoys not only hearing from Laskin but, recently, meeting her as well: "She calls, wants to know how I'm doing. She's a nice lady. She seems interested in what's going on in my life."

When Laskin and Weiss began talking about two months ago, they chatted about once a week. "It is important that you don't set a specific time to call," said Laskin, citing the disappointment that may occur if the call doesn't come through on time. "But it is important that you call."

Carole Henkin Weiss, Peter's mother, said Laskin's phone calls to her son have tremendously improved his social contact. "Peter has no contact with people outside of individuals that I arrange," she said.

Apple also saw the possibilities in connecting Anita Cohen and Francine Zawatsky late last year. Both women live in the same neighborhood in Potomac. Cohen, 52, has retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that eventually leaves the person blind or with an extremely limited field of vision. Cohen uses a guide dog named Hyra.

Cohen enjoys volunteering and had offered her services to Apple in whatever capacity she was needed. At about the same time, Zawatsky contacted Apple about her impending surgery for glaucoma. A match, said Apple.

"I was shocked by the information," said Zawatsky, 60, who was told that she was going blind in her left eye and would require surgery. "I had no symptoms. I called Sherrie and I was frantic. I was worried. She put me in touch with Anita."

Zawatsky, who had previously met Cohen, describes her as being "supportive, positive and caring." Zawatsky has since made a full recovery.

For Cohen, the phone chatting was fulfilling. "I mostly listened. She needed someone to talk to and speak with her." They decided to keep in touch after the surgery.

As a result of her experiences as a phone buddy, Cohen started a low-vision support group for non-seniors last fall. Approximately 15 people have attended her monthly sessions, where they talk about the problems confronting people who have poor vision.

For Zawatsky, the phone buddy experience has been an uplifting one. She has volunteered for Apple's buddy network and is awaiting a match. "At this time of year," she said, "being a phone buddy may be exactly what the doctor ordered."

People who wish to contact Apple can call her at 301-493-4200 or e-mail applesherrie@hotmail.com.