United Way Focus: Contact Helpline offers listening ear in crisis

When people are facing a difficult or crisis situation, often all they need is a caring, listening ear to help them through their troubles, even if it is over the telephone.

That is when the volunteers at Contact Helpline are able to make an impact.

One of the 15 charitable agencies receiving funding from the United Way of North Central Mississippi, Contact Helpline is a 24-hour, 7-days-a-week telephone line which provides information/referral services and crisis counseling across Oktibbeha, Lowndes, Clay, Noxubee, Choctaw, Winston, Webster and Monroe counties. Contact’s offices are based in Columbus.

In addition to crisis counseling and referral calls, Contact staff members make hundreds of reassurance calls to elderly and shut-in clients across the service area and work to help them meet needs that arise or get access to resources that meet those needs, said Katrina Sunivelle, Contact’s project coordinator.

At least one operator is on duty at all times of the day or night. Volunteer operators work four-hour shifts, except those who work the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift.

“We have someone on that phone line 24/7, and we get a lot of calls. The number varies from day to day. We might have a day where we get 20 calls or even 10 calls, but you may spend a lot of time to spend on calls,” Sunivelle said.

Volunteer operators are trained to “really, really listen” to callers and the problems they discuss, Sunivelle said. All volunteers must complete a three-day (9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) course that involves “a lot of role playing” exercises, she said.

“We have professors who come in and train volunteers to listen and how to handle different situations, including victim advocacy, mental health situations and suicide prevention. We want people who volunteer to truly listen and help callers learn on their own how to handle certain problems,” Sunivelle said.

“People who call with a problem usually have the answers they need within themselves; they just need someone to listen to them and help them reach the solution on their own. Operators have to help people feel comfortable talking to them. You have to be present in the moment and ready to listen and help,” she added.

Much of the work at Contact Helpline involves making “reassurance” calls to verify the well-being of elderly and shut-in clients.

“We have a lot of elderly clients with a lot of problems. Even though we call to check on them every day; sometimes they call back, just wanting someone to talk to, which we are happy to do. People feel lonely and need someone to talk to,” Sunivelle said

Staff and volunteers also help callers access resources they may need to get them out of a bad situation or provide other assistance. Operators have resource listings on computer and a hard copy posted to a bulletin board in the office, Sunivelle said.

“If they can remember our number, we can get them to the resources they need,” she said. “All the calls that come into Contact are confidential.”

Contact staff and volunteers literally take hundreds of calls each month from across the region. The first three months of 2015, for example, saw the helpline receive 44 information and referral calls and 325 crisis and listening calls, while volunteers made 3,614 reassurance calls to clients across the eight-county region the agency serves.

Statistics for that same time period show that Contact served 301 people in Oktibbeha County alone.

Because all calls to the helpline are confidential, the Contact staff also conducts various community outreach projects to raise awareness and broaden the agency’s community impact, Sunivelle said. Outreach projects include the iListen program and a Back to School Bash aimed at children and youth. The Back to School Bash, which provides book bags and school supplies for attending youth and children, served more than 400 children and youth in recent years.

“We try to reach out to people in other ways and let them know we’re here to help them. We serve everyone from womb to tomb,” Sunivelle said.

For more information about Contact Helpline and its programs, contact Sunivelle at (662) 327-2968.

To help financially support Contact’s work in the community, contact the United Way of North Central Mississippi at (662) 323-3830 or by e-mail at unwayokt@maxxsouth.net. The United Way is currently conducting its fall fundraising campaign to raise money for Contact and the other 14 agencies it serves.

United Way dollars provide crucial support for Contact’s work, Sunivelle said.

“Like the services we provide, United Way is the lifeline that allows us to restore, revive and redirect our callers from breaking point to turning point,” Sunivelle said.

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