The Cavalier Daily
Serving the University Community Since 1890

Hotline helps at beck and call

The University has a number of well-known secret societies, although students are left wondering about the mysterious organizations, who their members are and where they do their work. There is one highly confidential group on Grounds, however, that does something no secret society does -- it listens.

The Madison House HELPline, a Hotline for Empathetic Listening and Problems, is the only general-purpose hotline in Central Virginia.

One of Madison House's first projects, HELPline was formed 25 years ago. Its existence, however, is cloaked in the anonymity and confidentiality of its 100 plus volunteers who work in an undisclosed location.

Jen Austen, University publicity program director for the hotline and fourth-year College student, said HELPline volunteers serve the immediate interests of its callers 24 hours per day, seven days per week.

"It's a non-directive, non-judgmental hotline for short-term problems and referrals," Austen said.

The online volunteers -- those who answer phones -- receive a volume of about 20 to 50 calls a week, she said, although it fluctuates from week to week and between semesters.

The broad spectrum of issues range from University students overwhelmed with work, roommate problems, relationships, homesickness, unwanted pregnancy, alcohol abuse, eating disorders, sexual identity, job loss, family difficulties, faculty issues, professional and non-professional worker problems to problems with the elderly, Austen said.

Although the volunteers are trained in a range of different issues, Austen said that they have a formalized curriculum to deal with the complexities of suicidal callers.

The majority of the calls -- about 65 percent -- come from the community, she said. The volunteers, however, are best equipped to deal with problems of students since all online volunteers are University students.

Fourth-year College student Suzanne Hengl, formerly the operations program director and now the community program director, said HELPline can be a service to help students adjust to life at the University.

"Most of the problems are when people call because they need to vent and get stuff off their chest," Hengl said. "We're hoping people will call and say 'I had a bad day.'"

Volunteers have to be prepared to tackle anything that comes their way over the phone, which Austen said is not an easy task.

"We train our volunteers how to listen to people and try to give power back to the people calling," she said. "They reflect the feelings they're hearing in order for the caller to understand what they are feeling."

She added that the volunteers hold to basic tenets of never telling people what to do, but trying to understand the callers' values and priorities and help them decide the best course of action.

"We're not counselors, nor substitutes," Austen said. "We try to hook callers up with referrals in our huge database for long-term help."

All of the volunteers must first undergo a grueling training period that lasts one semester, before they can go online.

Ilana Probst, training program director and fourth-year College student, oversees the trainers of new volunteers in the semester-long program.

"Basically what they do is come in every week for three hours of observation and learn the policies and the manuals," Probst said.

The trainees listen to speakers from organizations such as the LGBTU and role-play with the trainers, who then critique the mock call, she said.

Once the training is competed, the HELPline volunteer takes to the phones, Austen said.

Volunteers are not supposed to tell anyone but a roommate or one close friend where they work.

"The volunteers are very unique and all anonymous but they can't get recognition for HELPline although they spend numerous hours, sometimes on overnights, and Friday night shifts," she said. "Sometimes we have to make up stories about where we are going."

Hengl said she gets frustrated with the secrecy that surrounds HELPline.

"You never know what happens once you hang up the phone to the people that you've been talking to for a couple hours," she said. "You wonder if they broke up with their boyfriend, or committed suicide, or what happened to their relationship."

Hengl said HELPline is different from other programs at Madison House because the relationship formed between the caller and the volunteer often ends as soon as the caller hangs up the phone.

"It's different because you're not playing with kids. You can't see the smiles," she said.

Despite this, Hengl and Austen said it is important to keep confidentiality and anonymity because it protects the callers as well as the volunteers.

"It is frustrating for the volunteers because it's not as gratifying as other programs," Austen said. "But when the caller calls back to thank you for turning his life around you're like wow, awesome; it's what gets me going."

Austen said HELPline had a caller two years ago who had lost his job and was ready to commit suicide because he didn't have any hope in life. He recently called back to thank the volunteer who gave him referrals for career centers, she said.

Probst said receiving concrete results for their efforts bolsters the organization.

"The morality of the entire place skyrockets when you get something like that," she said.

Hengl said the organization's secrecy is a fact of life for HELPline volunteers and those interested in working there. She said interested students often come to Madison House's front desk unsure about registration because of the confidential nature of the hotline.

"They come and ask for 'the registration form, you know, THE registration form,' wink, wink," she said. "It's kind of cute."

Despite the lack of recognition, the hotline's volunteers stick to the phone lines with enthusiasm, Austen said.

"I love it," she said. "I've been involved since second year"


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