- The Washington Times - Monday, December 30, 2002

Mary Azoy has advice for anyone considering work as a crisis hot line volunteer: Keep your advice to yourself.
Ms. Azoy, director of training for the CrisisLink hot line center, says the best way to help callers in need is not to throw in your two cents.
"Our callers are in the best position to figure out what's right for themselves." she says.
CrisisLink is one of several emergency call centers that provide the D.C. area with potentially life-saving support.
A background in counseling isn't a prerequisite for becoming a hot line volunteer. A big, unfettered heart is.
Other area emergency hot lines include the D.C Rape Crisis Center (202/333-RAPE), the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN, 800/656-HOPE), the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault (800/983-RAPE) and the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County (410/997-2272).
Most work with volunteer call takers, many of whom have little or no experience. Some centers allow the volunteers to take calls confidentially from their homes. Others require they work on-site.
Volunteer "listeners" with CrisisLink don't fit any particular mold, says Ms. Azoy, whose service answers an average of 14,000 calls a year.
"They're just ordinary citizens who would like to help out," she says.
The group offers training about six times a year. The training sessions involve 45 hours of instruction over about six weeks.
The bulk of that time consists of role-playing activities.
Making the CrisisLink cut isn't guaranteed.
"We do very, very thorough interviews with them, more in terms of their attitudes," Ms. Azoy says.
Potential volunteers must display an ability to remain nonjudgmental in the face of any call, she says, and must convey an empathic ability.
"We can train them in the technique and tools on how to respond," Ms. Azoy says. Those who arrive hoping to be the saviors of the callers, though, will not be effective listeners.
Listeners, who work up to four hours a week, must establish enough of a rapport with callers to bring out as much credible information as they can without losing confidentiality or offering informal counseling.
"Listening in the way we train them to do is very, very challenging to many people," she says.
Some calls last 15 minutes. Others can take two hours.
Those new to the process work with a shift partner, a more experienced person who can recommend tips in case they feel overwhelmed.
Ms. Azoy says she and her fellow workers lend an ear when the listeners need to vent.
"I've been called at 3 in the morning by someone who had an awful call," says Ms. Azoy, who adds that no specific information is passed along in these after-call chats. They simply let volunteers blow off steam and explore better ways to handle future calls.
Often, would-be volunteers have survived a crisis or two in their own lives, but Mr. Azoy insists they have a healthy perspective on their pasts before grappling with the difficult calls.
Arlene Krohmal, CrisisLink's executive director, understands that listening without offering advice is "counter-intuitive" to what we generally do in conversations with friends or families.
Yet, she says, the approach works.
"It's liberating to know how many people have the capacity to solve their own problems," Ms. Krohmal says.
Scott Berkowitz, president of the District-based RAINN, agrees that a counseling background is ideal but not crucial to working a crisis hot line.
"Some of the best ones we have are teachers, nurses, parents," Mr. Berkowitz says. "You have to have patience, empathy and kindness. The rest we can teach."
RAINN volunteers undergo 40 hours of training, dealing with topics such as sexual assault, counseling matters and the process involved in reporting such crimes.
Its trainers also rely heavily on role playing to sharpen the volunteers' budding skills.
New trainees are assigned less stressful shifts most of the calls come in from 6 p.m. to midnight, he says.
"You wouldn't put a first-timer on that shift," he says.
Trainees often reel over the statistics involved with sexual assault. Mr. Berkowitz says only one of every 20 rapists spend a single day in jail.
New volunteers are taught to assess the danger facing the caller at the start of the conversation. Is the rapist nearby? Is the abusive husband within earshot of this call?
Once that is established, the volunteer can help the caller deal with the nearly universal blame they feel.
"They say, 'I shouldn't have walked alone at night or gone back to this apartment,'" Mr. Berkowitz says. "So, a lot of it is hand-holding and understanding it isn't their fault."
The work isn't for everyone.
"You get a whole bunch who start the training and don't finish," he says. "Another group goes through the training, does two or three shifts, and says, 'I can't do this anymore.'"
Some RAINN centers across the country, particularly in large cities, have volunteers work in their offices. But often callers work out of their homes through confidentially safe phone hookups.
CrisisLink volunteer Jennifer K., 29, wanted to get involved in her community. For confidentiality and security's sake, she asked that her full name not be revealed.
Jennifer initially wasn't so sure about the methods CrisisLink used to help the callers.
"I was a little bit skeptical if empathic listening would feel satisfying to the caller," she says.
Her first batch of calls proved her wrong.
"There's an art to it," she says of the process. "It's not just repeating what the caller says. It's using words, listening to sighs, if they're smoking it all figures into how to assess them."
Those considering such work would be wise to read up on problems they might confront, Jennifer says.
"It helps to read anything you can on social issues, it helps to be more understanding," she says.
Deborah Lloyd Allers, volunteer coordinator with the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, trusts her instincts when interviewing potential volunteers.
"You don't have to have all the answers, but you can be enlightened," Ms. Allers says of the center's volunteers, who range from young college students to people in their 60s.
One of her first missions with new recruits is to drill them on the matters surrounding rape.
Citing one common misconception, she says a woman walking down the street in a short skirt does not invite or inspire rape.
The training features role playing, plus lectures by District police officers, attorneys and hospital workers, all of whom can play a role in a rape case.
Trainees learn that the first question to ask in a rape call is to assess the caller's immediate danger.
"Always ascertain if they're in a safe place and if they need medical attention," she says.
Ms. Allers says the center takes a similar, nonjudgmental approach with the callers.
"We never, ever tell a survivor what to do, never," she says. "We discuss with them all their options."
Callers who decide to report the crime are told what they can do to assist the police, such as not touching the crime scene or changing clothes, which might still carry fibers or other evidence on them.
Ms. Allers, whose volunteers work from their homes, says even those who have previously worked with crisis hot lines must go through her center's training schedule, which lasts for eight weeks and meets Tuesdays, Thursdays and some Saturdays.
And even the volunteer veterans know they aren't alone when they take their calls.
"It doesn't matter how long you've worked with us," Ms. Allers says. "You'll always have a backup."

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