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Crisis hotline seeks volunteers

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POTSDAM — St. Lawrence County’s long-standing crisis hotline is looking for volunteers with an “unconditional regard for other people.”

It takes empathy, caring and patience to take calls from a wide variety of callers whose mental health is at risk, said Hollis A. Easter, hotline coordinator at Reachout of St. Lawrence County.

Usually Reachout has 30 to 70 volunteers in addition to its three full-time staffers to man the 24/7 hotline. However, many student volunteers did not return after the summer break, and the organization is down to a crew of 15. Most of these volunteers are community members who have been with Reachout for years.

Fall is often a low point for volunteer numbers, because college students graduate or move away, but this year a particularly low number returned.

The hotline is looking to the colleges and the community to replenish its dwindling ranks.

Many people have a false image of what it’s like to work at a crisis hotline, according to Mr. Easter.

“People tend to have an idea that every time the phone rings someone’s standing on a bridge,” he said.

The reality is much different. The hotline receives more than 21,000 calls every year, and only a tiny fraction of these are from people considering an immediate suicide.

There’s no such thing as a typical call, said Reachout Executive Director Karen B. Easter, Hollis’s mother.

People call the hotline when they have a problem and they don’t know where to turn, and the staff and volunteers do their best to help in whatever way they can. Often this means directing the caller toward counselling, sometimes toward government and nonprofit organizations than can help with their more immediate needs.

Often callers’ problems stem from a lack of basic necessities, such as food, heating or shelter, Ms. Easter said.

“Think about how upset you would be if you had no food,” she said.

Reachout provides no direct assistance, but it usually can point callers toward a helping hand.

Volunteers are vital to make sure the phone is staffed at all times.

“Without it, there’s nothing here,” Ms. Easter said.

The location of Reachout’s Potsdam headquarters is kept secret to protect the staff and volunteers who work there. Most of the organization’s funding comes from the state Office of Mental Health and St. Lawrence County.

The hotline started as a SUNY Potsdam initiative in 1976. It became independent in 1979, expanding its reach to all of St. Lawrence County, but students still play a big role in the organization, often making up the majority of the volunteer force.

Volunteers receive 100 hours of training over eight weeks before they are allowed to answer the phones on their own. It can be tough finding the ideal recruit, according to Mr. Easter. Sometimes a person looks great on paper, but finds he or she is not cut out for the job.

“There’s no real way to tell who’s going to be good at this work. You just have to try it,” he said.

One of the biggest challenges for some is dealing with the emotional toll that comes from helping those battling with mental illness and physical needs. Usually, volunteers have no way of knowing how a caller’s life turns out once they hang up the phone, Ms. Easter said.

“You’re just assisting someone along in their life path, and most of the time you don’t get to find out how it ends up,” she said.

Volunteers are trained to look out for their own mental health, and Reachout’s full-time staff is always on call to provide support if it is needed.

Ms. Hollis said the opportunity to help others usually outweighs the emotional stress.

Last week was particularly difficult, she said, as problems with the phone and Internet service at headquarters made doing her job difficult. But then she received a call from a woman who needed help, and she was able to provide it.

Moments like that make it all worth it, she said.

“It made up for an awful lot,” she said.

Reachout is accepting applications online at www.reachoutonline.org/apply or by phone at 315-265-2422. Applications are due Oct. 1, and training will begin Oct. 4.

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