How I Finally Found the Right Volunteer Experience

Giving back isn’t always as simple as it sounds, but it's worth it

By Jill Smolowe
Originally Posted On March 19, 2017

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Jill Smolowe is the author of Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief. To learn more about her book and her coaching, visit www.jillsmolowe.com.

Credit: Getty Images

When I first read about the Crisis Text Line, I was instantly interested. Its focus on helping young people in a moment of distress promised to make good use of skills I’d developed as a grief and divorce coach. Couple that with my ongoing search for a satisfying volunteer experience, and it seemed like a slam dunk…

…until I thought about the texting thing. That conjured visions of me tapping out typo after typo with my too-big thumbs on the too-small buttons on my cell phone (a device with which I hardly have a love relationship). I took a pass.

Try, Try Again

As I continued to look for a volunteer opportunity, I was surprised to discover that it’s not so easy to find an outlet that tidily matches the skills and passion you have to offer with the needs of an organization.

One friend told me that she knocked on non-profit doors for years trying to find an outlet for her environmental interests, only to come up empty-handed. Another friend who wanted to do advocacy work for homeless dogs found that the free offer of her time was not enough to get her phone calls returned.

Over the next eight weeks, trainers armed me with a canny array of skills for guiding people through a moment of crisis.

Some of my own efforts proved discouraging. A group that works with grieving children put me through a day-long training, only to notify me that my services wouldn’t be needed at an upcoming weekend-long event. A mentorship writing program that pairs high school girls with professional writers put me on a wait list. Given that I don’t have two heads, do have good manners, and offer a professional track record in both the writing and grief-work fields, I suspected that I was an older candidate than either organization was seeking.

Age proved a non-issue when I signed up for a tutoring program. My fourth-grader and I hit it off from the get-go. But he was a bright 10-year-old boy who didn’t actually need tutoring. Each Wednesday we’d tear through his (boring!) assignments, then play games. Mostly, he kicked my butt at chess. Often our time together felt more like babysitting than “giving back.” (And, ahem, my math skills were not always terribly useful to him.)

A New Approach

Around the time his school year was winding down, my daughter returned from college, absent her cell phone, which mistakenly had gone home with another student. Given my daughter’s 24/7 texting habits, I assumed that retrieving her phone would be a priority. To my surprise, she was actually enjoying the time untethered to a phone. To my greater surprise, that freedom hadn’t cut her off from exchanging texts with her friends.

“I do it on the computer,” she told me.

Subtext: Duh.

Valhalla! Texting via computer would mean a full-size keyboard, a big monitor and none of that annoying thumbs-only stuff that, for me, produces more typos than real words.

Quickly I found my way to crisistextline.org and clicked the “Apply Now” button for volunteers. After clearing the assorted hurdles (including a criminal background check and references from two people) and making a yearlong commitment to handle calls four hours a week, I was assigned to an online training pod.

Becoming a Volunteer

Over the next eight weeks, trainers armed me with a canny array of skills for guiding people through a moment of crisis. The focus was on helping people shift from the heat of despair or upset to a place of cool and calm. The list of potential issues we could expect to encounter was formidable, among them suicide, self-harm, sexual abuse, LGBT bullying, eating disorders and homelessness.

No matter what the crisis, the Crisis Text Line approach was clear: you’re not here to solve people’s problems. Rather, you’re here to listen to them, to validate their pain, to remind them of their strengths, then to work with them collaboratively to identify a goal that will help them to keep moving in a positive direction when the texting conversation (convo, in crisis counseling lingo) ends.

In a nutshell, the text line was offering training for a skill that I hadn’t realized could be taught or enhanced: empathy. Armed with a particular style of questioning and response, it was possible to guide texters away from feelings of extreme distress. The hotline’s data backed that up: while some 70 percent of callers open conversations with dire statements (“I’ve lost the will to live,” “Suicidal feelings,” “I’m overwhelmed and want to die”), only 1 percent require intervention to halt a suicide attempt.

Six months later as I near the 100-convo mark, texters who write, “I’m trying not to cut myself,” no longer throw me. (Tip: Try drawing on your skin with a red marker, then tracing the lines with an ice cube. It “bleeds.”) I’ve yet to encounter any of the one-percenters (roughly 10 texters a day) at imminent risk of taking their lives. But I’ve shared the joy of other counselors who, in collaboration with a supervisor, have mounted successful rescues by tapping into local resources.

A Satisfying Experience

The Crisis Text Line platform is mindful of how intense these conversations can be for volunteers. Though everything is done online and I work from home, supervisors are always available to guide. And there is a chat room counselors can turn to for instant advice from other on-duty counselors while handling a difficult conversation.

In another chat room, counselors can take a breather. There, the messages are always supportive and lively. Given that 77 percent of the hotline’s 2,800 active counselors are between the ages of 18 and 35, favored discussion topics run toward cats, holiday plans and grad school applications.

For the 117 crisis counselors who are over age 55, such dialogue offers a delightful window on Millennial interests and preoccupations. The actual crisis conversations provide a sobering window on the stresses young people face today. “Volunteers over age 55 make exceptional crisis counselors,” Lublin said via email. “Through lived experience, they are (not surprisingly!) committed, highly empathetic and strong active listeners.”

As I pass the halfway mark of my first year as a volunteer (at year one, I get a text line sweatshirt. Woohoo!), I feel that it was well worth the hunt to find a volunteer experience that engages my heart, mind and skills. If you, too, are seeking a satisfying volunteer activity, please trust there are people and causes out there that need your time and experience. Just be forewarned: it may take some trial and error to find what you’re looking for.