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Hotline Volunteer

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The girl on the other end of the phone was no longer sure if she could go on. Her parents were getting a divorce, and her grandmother had just passed away. Her grandmother was her only friend in the world, and life without her seemed so lonely, so unbearable.

Unable to express her feelings of loss and loneliness to her parents and others close to her, she turned to a local crisis hotline.

And it soon became obvious that her grief ran much deeper when she told a volunteer that she wished she could join her grandmother.

"She was quite depressed and suicidal," recalls Patricia Harnisch. She is the co-executive director of a distress center.

She says the girl called almost every day for four or five months. Local volunteers eventually referred her to a local hospital for kids where she found the professional help she needed.

The parents had no idea what their daughter was going through. And they were, of course, incredibly thankful for what the volunteers had done for her.

"When we heard from her parents, she was doing quite well," says Harnisch.

But this story could have had a completely different ending had it not been for the volunteers who found the time to listen to her story.

Hotline volunteers offer information, counseling and referrals to people in need and distress.

They perform a form of emotional first aid by listening to the stories of the people who call them without judging them. And if necessary, volunteers give callers information on how and where they can find help if they want it.

"It's all about listening," says Toni Pohl, a volunteer with a crisis center.

And you cannot let your own judgments get in the way, says Robyn Daly. She is a hotline volunteer for a crisis line.

Hotline volunteers must commit themselves to a minimum number of hours, and they must be available for a set number of evening and night shifts. They must also follow a number of general rules.

For one, they should never give advice, says Kim Kates. "That's not what we are here for," says Kates. "And also, we don't know enough of the situation."

They should also not judge the circumstances or actions that forced a person to reach out for help. Nor should they judge any future actions a person may be considering. A hotline volunteer, for instance, should never tell a suicidal person that suicide is wrong.

"You want to let them know that you don't want them to kill themselves," says Kates.

"But you don't want to say that's a bad idea. Because if a person is feeling suicidal, they know it is not what they want to do. But they are feeling like they have to. So it's not going to make them feel any better or change their mind in the least if you say don't do that."

Volunteers must also protect the privacy of the people who call them. And they should never develop a personal relationship with anyone who calls. "Because if you start having personal attachment to what happens, you are just going to get frustrated and burned out," says Daly.

Personal safety is another reason. "There are a lot of people in the world who are, how shall I put this, troubled," says Daly. "It is really not a good idea to agree to meet these people to help them solve their problems. Really, all we know is what they told us on the phone."

Daly will often get a call from an elderly woman who cannot leave her home because of several physical disabilities. "She doesn't meet very many people, so she likes to call at least once a day just to say hello," says Daly, who has been a hotline volunteer for eight and a half years.

And Daly is happy to be a source of comfort and companionship for a woman whom others have forgotten. "She is always saying, 'I'm so glad you people are there because I would have nothing,'" says Daly.

Pohl once answered a call from a woman who had no idea what she should make for dinner. "My gut reaction was, 'Oh, come on,'" Pohl says. But this seemingly minor crisis pointed to a much bigger problem Pohl soon discovered.

Pohl says the woman had several children, and the daily demands and pressures of caring for them taxed her physically and emotionally. "Her whole system just shut down, she was so overloaded," Pohl says. "And she just needed to vent all that."

As the woman talked about her feelings and frustrations, she started to regain hope and control. And by the end of the conversation, she knew what to make for dinner.

Sal Consoli is a hotline volunteer. He and two other volunteers once helped a woman get through the night. The woman, a victim of physical abuse, experienced flashbacks.

But Consoli and his colleagues checked on her every so often, and the next morning she was able to see her therapist. "She called back the next day, saying 'Thank you very much.'"

How to Get Involved

Organizations of all sorts and sizes run hotlines, from private groups to government agencies, from universities to hospitals, from groups for people with mental disabilities to groups for people who suffer from major diseases like cancer or AIDS.

And a high turnover rate means organizations that run hotlines have a constant demand for new hotline volunteers.

Consider the National HIV and AIDS Treatment Hotline run by Project Inform, a nationwide community group. Its hotline volunteers answer some 45,000 to 50,000 calls a year, and it could use more staff.

"Our demand for hotline volunteers is fairly high," says Adrian Elwell. He manages the hotline. "We currently have approximately 40 to 45 active volunteers, and 10 more would be ideal."

Generally, hotlines are looking for people who can listen and relate well to other people. Personal experience with a cause will also help you find a volunteer opportunity.

But not everyone can become a hotline volunteer. Groups that run hotlines will screen out applicants who do not have the right personality, age or who have questionable references.

Some groups will also run a criminal background check. And you may have to undergo a considerable amount of training before you can sit down behind a phone. But it may be well worth it.

Consoli says he has become an even better listener since he started volunteering a year ago. "It has made me a better communicator, a better listener, and more socially responsive to the needs of some of the people out there," he says.

Kates agrees. She says being a hotline volunteer has made her more compassionate. It has also helped her professionally. "It has given me a lot of directions," she says. "It has given me a lot of contacts in the nonprofit sector."

But by far the greatest reward is being able to help others in need. "Volunteers do make a huge difference," she says. "It's a real worthwhile way to spend your time."


International Volunteer Programs Association
This site allows you to search for volunteer and intern opportunities across the globe

United Way Volunteer Center
Learn more about becoming a volunteer

Volunteer Counseling
Learn about becoming a volunteer crisis counselor

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