United Way Focus: Contact Helpline offers help when needed most

COLUMBUS — Telephone calls received by volunteers and staff members with the Contact Helpline run the gamut of needs on any given day, but there is one thing those manning the phones want callers to know: Someone is always there to help them.

Contact Helpline is a 24-hour, 7-days-a-week telephone line residents from across an eight-county area can call for information/referral services and crisis counseling. Contact Helpline is one of 15 charitable agencies receiving funding from the United Way of North Central Mississippi each year.

In 2012, the Contact Helpline received 16,163 reassurance calls, 1,123 information and referral calls and 1,610 listening and crisis calls in Oktibbeha, Webster, Choctaw and Winston counties.

Though many might think of Contact as a “suicide hotline,” crisis counseling is just one facet of the services provided to callers, said Katrina Sunivelle, one of Contact’s two project coordinators and VISTA workers. Contact operators may be reached by calling (662) 323-HELP (4357).

While Contact Helpline serves primarily Oktibbeha, Lowndes, Clay, Noxubee, Choctaw, Winston, Webster and Monroe counties, the agency also has a toll-free number available that anyone needing help across the state can call, Sunivelle said. All calls – regardless of type – are kept confidential, she said.

“At least one operator is on duty at all times of the day or night. Volunteer operators are trained to really, really listen to callers and the problems they discuss,” said Sunivelle, who herself works regular shifts as an operator. “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.”

Staff members and volunteers make hundreds of reassurance calls to elderly and shut-in clients across Contact’s eight-county service area.

“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 to talk to someone,” Sunivelle said.

Volunteers and staff members also work to help callers meet needs that have arisen and identify resources to meet those needs, Sunivelle said.

“Our operators have resource listings available on the computer and we have a hard copy posted to a bulletin board in the office,” she said. “If folks can remember our number, we can get them to the resources they need.”

Volunteers play critical role

Volunteers are a continual need for the agency, Sunivelle said. Before being placed on a shift as an operator, volunteers must complete a three-day course that involves numerous role-playing exercises. Trained professors lead the volunteer course, teaching the participants how to listen and handle different situations such as victim advocacy, suicide prevention and mental health situations, Sunivelle said.

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

“We want people who volunteer to truly listen and help callers learn how to handle certain problems 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.”

Past Contact Helpline clients often become volunteers themselves, Sunivelle says.

“A lot of volunteers with us have suffered the losses of spouses or loved ones or dealt with other problems, and they want to give back,” she said.

One former caller – a man whose wife died from Alzheimer’s disease – now is now a regular Contact volunteer, Sunivelle said.

“He visited his wife every day at the nursing home until she died. Even though the time came when she did not recognize him at the end of her life, he still told her he loved her every day,” Sunivelle recalled. “He now volunteers six days a week with Contact Helpline, and as he leaves after his shift, we often hear him telling his wife how much he loves her.”

The payoff for Contact Helpline volunteers and staff members comes when they know they have truly been able to help someone in need, particularly in a crisis situation, Sunivelle said.

In recent months, one young girl who called the Contact Helpline was suicidal, unable to bear the weight of difficult home life involving a drug-addicted mother, Sunivelle said.

“We have been able to follow up with her and get her into a new foster home in Jackson,” she said. “We’ve made sure she’s all right, and she’s doing much better.”

Beyond the phone line

Contact Helpline staff members also conduct regular outreach projects across the Golden Triangle, including its iListen program and Back to School Bash, the latter of which provides book bags and school supplies for youth and children.

“The purpose of our outreach projects is not only to make an impact in the community, but also raise awareness about what Contact Helpline does,” Sunivelle said. “While so much of our work is confidential – all the calls that come into Contact are confidential – we try to reach out to people in other ways to let them know we’re here to help them. We serve people of all ages.”

Needs for the agency

Like many non-profit agencies receiving money from the United Way, Contact Helpline also conducts regular fundraising events to support its operational costs.

“Every bit of the money we receive from United Way makes a difference. The cost of maintaining our office location, utilities and the phone lines all adds up,” said Sunivelle.

The greatest need, however, is more volunteers, Sunivelle says. During some times of the year, Contact Helpline staff members often are the only ones available to work shifts as operators, she said.

“More volunteers are definitely needed for shifts, as well as board members from each of the eight counties we serve,” Sunivelle said. “There is also a need for increased awareness across the eight counties about the services we offer.”

For more information about Contact Helpline, call its main office at (662) 327-2968 or visit the website at http://www.contacthelplinegtrms.org.

For more information about the United Way of North Central Mississippi and its fundraising campaign, call the office at (662) 323-3830 or visit the website at http://www.unitedwayncms.com.