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Distress Centre Calgary / 50 Stories  / 50 Stories Part 22: Getting needs met – volunteering in the ’90s

50 Stories Part 22: Getting needs met – volunteering in the ’90s

Image: Volunteers at the 1994 Christmas party.

150 volunteers were on the lines in 1990, with a new shift from 9 pm to 2 am added due to volume.  The initial phone number from 1975, 266-1605, was still the place to call in a crisis. Drumheller joined with Banff and Canmore to use a 1-800 number to access Distress Centre, raising the call numbers.  Joan Roy was brought in as the first full-time crisis counselling intake worker in 1993, and helped provide better and more consistent monitoring of the volunteer program. Suicide calls soared, increasing the pressure on volunteers.

Teen Line volunteers in 1996.

Suzanne Rosebrugh, then counselling supervisor, remembers:

“There wouldn’t necessarily be a staff member there, once a volunteer had proven they could do the work. The process at the time for suicide calls was to flag down the other volunteer and write on a little piece of scrap paper that they had to call 911, and try and juggle the call with the other clients. You would have the other volunteer listen in to help you figure it out, and put the person on hold for a short time to try and decide whether you thought there was a gun involved and all those sorts of things. Compared to what I picture it must be like now, our process was very haphazard.”

As always, world or local events were reflected in the type of calls responded to by the volunteers. Laura Pylypow, volunteer from 1994 to the present, comments on her early experiences:

“It was still called Distress Centre/Drug Centre when I started. Addictions, gambling, self-harming, and eating disorders were all components of calls much of the time. I was a new volunteer when Kurt Cobain killed himself. That was my first acquaintance with the effect of celebrity suicide, natural disasters, the boom and bust cycles of the economy, especially for the people who have been through multiple cycles. How despairing and disaffected people can get. We got customized guidance when there is something specific like that going on.

“In those days, volunteers had to take their share of midnight shifts. After 3 am, you could usually nap. I loved the calls in the middle of the night. Partly because we had more time, but I also think people are in a different mindset. The rapport was deeper, and the exchange that would happen in the course of the calls seemed more profound. There was one lady who at one point told me her life in one sentence. What she never knew was, she also told me my life in that sentence: ‘I was the only child, but I was never the favourite.’

Volunteers being honoured for their years of service in 1996, with Laura on the far right.

“I used to bring my dog, Sonia, along for safety if I worked midnight shifts alone.  Several other female volunteers did the same, and the crisis-program staff unofficially accepted it. There was an unspoken conspiracy to keep it under the radar of the ED, who was adamant about a hard ‘no pets’ policy. One day she came in early while I was staying late doing call cards (on paper, sigh…) and the dog had to hide in a cupboard until we could smuggle her out.

“One of the first volunteers that I coached, the call response in my opinion started out just terribly. It seemed to me that he was doing everything wrong. At what point do I put a stop to this? I started making notes on what the callers were saying and suddenly I realized they were having a perfectly fine experience. They were getting their needs met. They were thanking him. From that day forward, when I think someone is doing something wrong and I have this itch to step in and criticize them, I always try to look honestly at the effect they are having. He went on to be one of the real fixtures, a real super-star volunteer, and I almost kicked him out on the first coaching shift. Keeps me honest.”

''That was my first acquaintance with the effect of celebrity suicide, natural disasters, the boom and bust cycles of the economy, especially for the people who have been through multiple cycles. How despairing and disaffected people can get.'' - Laura Pylpow

By 1996, volunteers were harder to come by, especially for midnights. A newsletter reported that staff often had to cover off shifts in numbers that had not been seen since 1986. Some things did not change though, as it was reported there was a new “useful and interesting handout on how to deal with sex calls available in the phone room.” More than a hundred calls a day were coming in on the various lines, answered by 106 active volunteers.

David Kirby, now counselling supervisor but then a volunteer, remembers the times:

Volunteers in the phone room in 1997.

“When I started in 1996, they still allowed smoking in the contact centre. When you opened the door, the smoke would billow out, in huge clouds, no one thought about health risks. One of your responsibilities as a volunteer, if you smoked, was to empty the ashtray and not set anything on fire. When they took smoking away, everyone would be outside taking breaks, and you would be like, where is everybody?

“There was no staff, it was just volunteers answering the phones and doing all the traces and rescues and emergency stuff. The volume was nowhere near what it is now, but it was still quite overwhelming.  Sometimes you would have to get police involved. They first introduced the Phone Room Consultant (PRC) as a pilot project, when I was about 2 or 3 years in, and that was really innovative, to have a staff person there to support the volunteers.

“A lot of the feel-good stories are related to when you intervened with someone suicidal, and you got through to police and you heard police actually presenting to them, protecting life and limb. You could breathe a sigh of relief, but then you were on the phone again, picking up the next call. Back then, if you were a good listener and you had rudimentary typing, you were good to go. I was there when you could tell how busy a shift was by how cramped your hand was from filling out call cards.”

''A lot of the feel-good stories are related to when you intervened with someone suicidal, and you got through to police and you heard police actually presenting to them, protecting life and limb. You could breathe a sigh of relief, but then you were on the phone again, picking up the next call.'' - David Kirby

A note on volunteers from our summer 1996 newsletter.

Distress Centre continued to try and meet the needs of a diverse community through its volunteers. The first full-time visually impaired volunteer was trained in 1997. In July, I-Dentify, a lesbian/gay/bisexual teen support group presented to volunteers and staff for the first time on record. In collaboration with Deaf and Hard of Hearing Society, all lines were TTY device enabled, and volunteers trained in its use. Specific training in domestic violence and helping callers with developmental disabilities were introduced in 1999. Services were available in 14 languages, (12 on the teen line).

A mentoring system for volunteers, still in place, was piloted in May, linking a senior volunteer with a new one for additional support. Computerized decision trees were introduced, to assist volunteers in working through high risk situations. By the end of the decade, 98 volunteers had turned into 130, serving an average time of 27 months after 70 hours of training. 85% of callers reported being satisfied or very satisfied. As Dorothy Davis, Volunteer Coordinator noted “while the volunteer program may be very cost effective compared with having paid staff, it still requires a huge amount of work and support from all members of staff, management and board.”

Distress Centre is sharing a story every Tuesday in 2020 for 50 weeks to celebrate our 50th Anniversary. We hope you will join us on this journey. All stories can be found here.

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