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Reachout crisis hotline needs more volunteers

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POTSDAM — For staff and volunteers at Reachout, St. Lawrence County’s crisis intervention, information and referral hotline, answering phones in some cases means saving lives.

That’s the main reason the agency is hoping to have more volunteer applications in by Feb. 4. Volunteers handle calls from people struggling with problems ranging from suicidal thoughts to heating emergencies.

“We have about 25 volunteers now, which is a little lower than we’d like,” Executive Director Karen Butler Easter said. “Normally, between 30 and 50 would be ideal.”

Ms. Butler Easter said that since a majority of hotline volunteers are college students, recruitment is a continuous process. “They’re only in our community for a few years,” she said.

Ms. Butler Easter said the county could not have a program like Reachout without student volunteers.

“It is a lot of work to staff a 24-hour hotline,” she said. “The students have donated hundreds of thousands of hours.”

Ms. Butler Easter said many nonprofit organizations in the county have seen smaller volunteer training classes in recent years.

“I think it probably has something to do with the poor economy,” she said. “Students need to work for higher pay because college is more expensive.”

Ms. Butler Easter said volunteers have to attend a three-day training weekend, which consists of six interactive classes and workshops that discuss main concerns of the north country, including what life is like living on a low income, where people can turn for housing, heating or food, and how to help people who are struggling with mental health issues. The training is run by Hollis A. Easter, Ms. Butler Easter’s son and hotline coordinator.

She said silent-listening studies conducted within the last 10 years have shown that the three personal qualities of those answering the hotline that resulted in the best outcome for the caller were respect, empathy for the caller and being a good listener.

“There’s no average day,” Ms. Butler Easter said. “Some days you just sit here and do nothing, and other days you could have 100 calls.”

She said the hotline gets 21,000 to 28,000 calls per year, a high percentage which are related to mental health crises.

“The first thing we do is talk to people who are upset, no matter the issue, and help them calm down and figure out the next step forward,” Ms. Butler Easter said. “The second thing we do is give them information and referrals on resources for their basic needs.”

She said that although the hotline doesn’t provide money or other basic needs to callers, it refers them to other organizations that will, such as the Salvation Army, Catholic charities, neighborhood centers, Helping Hands, the county Department of Social Services and many others.

So far this winter, a high percentage of the calls have related to cold weather.

With subzero temperatures and a December ice storm that cut off power for many in the north country, the most common weather-related calls have been from people not able to afford to heat their homes.

“There have been many days below zero with a wind chill, and people’s homes need a lot more fuel for the heat to work,” Ms. Butler Easter said. “For people who are living on a low income, they may have houses that are not very well insulated and will need even more fuel.”

As confidentiality is vital for the hotline, the volunteers and staff workers have to remain anonymous. One full-time staff member of 19 years said this winter’s utility bills and anything to do with staying warm have kept the phones ringing.

“The first thing I usually tell people is, ‘Turn the thermostat down,’” he said. “It will make the little bit of heat they have last longer.”

The staff member, who has a master’s degree in counseling, said he’s been with Reachout for almost 20 years because he likes being able to help people.

“I love my job,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what their issue is; if I can help just by listening, then that’s what I’m going to do.”

People can fill out a volunteer application online at reachouthotline.org, which then will be reviewed by Reachout’s applicant review committee.

Ms. Butler Easter said applicants who qualify will have to participate in the training weekend Feb. 7 to 9.

The hotline’s number is 265-2422.

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