The volunteers at the 2-1-1 Hotline help others by listening to them 

A Friendly Ear

The scent of popcorn fills the air in the kitchen of Trident United Way's 2-1-1 Hotline call center. The fridge is stocked with snacks that volunteers share. And in the Hotline room itself, a TV shows movies. Against the wall, a futon and a cot have been set up. The sheets for both have been washed so many times they're especially soft.

Although this may sound like the call center is the perfect setting for a sleepover, no one is playing truth or dare, no one is fawning over pictures of Justin Bieber in Tiger Beat. The 2-1-1 volunteers are too busy answering phones, with many of the calls coming from people in distress.

"We're like emotional first aid," says Caroline Byrd, the Hotline training coordinator. "We help people through those tough moments to the next step."

Nationally, 2-1-1 call centers serve as informational and referral services. But Trident United Way's 2-1-1 Hotline call center is different. It is also a confidential crisis intervention and counseling line. Charleston's Hotline is accredited by both the American Association of Suicidology and the Alliance for Information and Referral Services.

Dial 2-1-1 and there will always be someone who'll listen. You'll hear a voice through the receiver, and you can tell them your problems, but they won't give any advice. Their tone will be genuine and warm, regardless of what is troubling you. The folks at Hotline receive phone calls from battered women, survivors of suicide, even kids who've missed the school bus. They won't judge what you say, and they will accept you for who you are.

Trident's 2-1-1 Hotline can trace its beginnings to 1970 when the Hotline was created. Back then it was staffed by a small group of concerned citizens who answered questions from callers about drugs, teenage pregnancy, and the like in a church basement. In 2003, the Hotline merged with Trident United Way and transformed into 2-1-1 Hotline, a 24-hour service with more than 60 volunteers. Last year alone, 2-1-1 answered 56,410 calls.

All the services 2-1-1 provides are confidential, and so is the location of the call center. When a person calls the 2-1-1 Hotline, the call remains private, as does the identity of the volunteers, if they so choose.

Most of the calls 2-1-1 receives are from folks who are having trouble meeting their basic needs, from paying rent and utility bills to finding food and shelter. Each call station is connected to a computer, and in the 2-1-1 database, there are between 1,500-2,000 programs operators refer callers to. These programs are primarily nonprofit health and human service agencies, ranging from support groups to homeless shelters.

But while the majority of calls during the day are for basic needs, the evening hours yield an influx of far more urgent and distressing calls. Many of these are from people contemplating suicide.

Trident's 2-1-1 counselors are not therapists. They are not experts on grief and loss, post-traumatic stress disorder, or substance abuse problems. However, plenty of people in their database are. But the main goal of the operator is not to simply give callers the phone numbers for other agencies. More than anything, Hotline's counselors offer callers a person they can talk to, a person who can show them a little warmth and understanding. They let callers talk, and just by talking, the operators empower the callers to cope with whatever is troubling them. Callers can then take action by contacting the agency most likely to help them, but they are never forced to.

"2-1-1 ultimately believes that people have the capacity to make their own decisions," says Sonia Donnelly, the phone room manager. "We empower people by giving them the space and time to find answers themselves."

According to Barry Waldman, vice president of communications for Trident, the 2-1-1 volunteer training is "mind blowing." The training, which is required for people to become a call counselor, spans four days, and volunteers must work with other operators before they are ready to answer calls themselves.

"The phone counselor offers people a connection they haven't had in years," says Waldman. "The training helps you to develop powerful skills that can make people cry with appreciation."

Waldman says that trainees are taught such skills as active listening, learning to be non-judgmental, building rapport, and, last but not least, establishing empathy. Trainees are also taught how to listen for warning signs from their callers and how to assess caller risk.

"As human beings, we've all felt the same range of emotions," training coordinator Byrd says. "And that's why you don't have to have been in the same situation to be able to connect with a caller."

Volunteers have to learn how to connect to callers without bringing up their own past experiences — their "stuff," their "baggage" — in an attempt to relate. The conversation is not about the volunteer. It's about the caller.

However, with all the overwhelming emotions operators are exposed to, they must learn how to take care of themselves, to recognize when they too are under stress, a skill 2-1-1 reinforces during training. Because let's face it, these counselors have to cope with what they hear, and a lot of it is heartbreaking and, in some cases, disturbing.

Although the Hotline prides itself on being a place where callers will not be judged, for operators this task isn't always easy. After all, it's natural for people to harbor their own personal prejudices. However, if callers fear that they will be judged by 2-1-1 operators, these feelings will prevent them from freely expressing their emotions, a fundamental part of what makes the Hotline so healing.

Admittedly, we are all judgmental beings. But the first step toward being non-judgmental is to realize what your prejudices are. In training, volunteers are asked to reassess their beliefs and values. They are asked to be honest with themselves about the stereotypes they have about other people, whether it be people with handicaps, victims of rape, or men with heavy Southern accents. Volunteers are then taught how to manage these thoughts and how they may affect communication.

Typically, Donnelly says, most people's reaction to someone who admits they're experiencing suicidal thoughts is to devalue the troubled individual's feelings. They'll say, "Oh, you don't mean that," or "Think about everyone else in the world who has it worse than you."

These kinds of statements cut people down, and they block communication between the caller and the operator. These are the responses 2-1-1 teaches volunteers to avoid.

Donnelly says empathy can't be taught, but she believes that a volunteer's ability to empathize can increase. Take for example a volunteer who harbors negative opinions about battered women who repeatedly return home to their abusive husbands. The Hotline teaches volunteers the reasons why people are forced to stay in those situations, the most common being financial dependency. This knowledge helps volunteers cast off their prejudices. It's important to note, however, that the Hotline never asks volunteers to change their values, opinions, or beliefs. It simply asks them to put them aside while they're on the phone.

During training, volunteers are also taught how to assess whether or not callers pose an immediate danger to themselves or others. They look for certain key phrases, like "I can't go on like this anymore" or "I just want to sleep forever," signals that indicate that callers intend to take some kind of action. When volunteers hear such talk, they ask follow-up questions, for example, inquiring, "When you say that you can't go on like this anymore, are you thinking of killing yourself?" or "Have you had any suicidal feelings in the past few months?"

If callers answers yes to any of these questions, counselors then delve deeper in an effort to calm callers, urging them to talk further. Volunteers also work with these callers to form a safety plan, oftentimes getting them to agree to call the Hotline back if their suicidal or homicidal feelings return. Sometimes, the phone counselors ask callers to call back in a few hours.

If callers are at an especially high risk, volunteers may ask for permission from the callers to send help their way. Depending on what callers wish, counselors may contact a family member, a professional counselor, or even EMS. The point of all of this is to empower callers to take action to help themselves.

In a special, stand-alone Marvel comic, Captain America, the heroic leader of the Avengers, is faced with one of his toughest challenges to date, helping a boy who is contemplating suicide. Crafted in response to the recent cases of teenage suicide that have gripped the nation, the comic, Captain America: A Little Help, contains virtually no dialogue, a reflection on the lonely and isolating struggle of those suffering from depressing, while the illustrations paint a portrait of a young man in the pits of despair — he's failing at school, his girlfriend left him, his mother is an absentee parent, the power company is about to cut off electricity to his apartment.

While standing on the edge of a building, debating whether or not to jump, the young boy spies Captain America engaged in a battle with Hydra agents. Seeing that Cap is about to be defeated, the young man decides to lend the superhero a hand, in effect saving Captain America's life. Inspired by this episode, the young man heads home and calls the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK.

Of course, you don't have to be a super hero to help your fellow man. After all, the volunteers at the 2-1-1 Hotline don't have the strength of 10 men. They don't wear bullet-proof costumes or wield unbreakable shields made of experimental alloys. They simply listen. And sometimes that's enough to save a life.

If you are interested in joining Trident United Way's 2-1-1 Hotline, please e-mail 211@tuw.org or call 2-1-1. You can view the free online comic, Captain America: A Little Help at marvel.com/comic_books/issue/38864/captain_america_a_little_help_2011_1.


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