The Helpline services are being integrated into the front desk where staff and volunteers can coordinate and more efficiently help people calling in. BTL photo: Crystal Proxmire

Affirmations Helpline Revamped

Center's First Program Changes With Technology

By Crystal A. Proxmire

In the 25 years that the Affirmations Helpline has been serving the public, it has seen a few changes. From the basement of someone's home, to a cramped office, to its own special room at the new community center, change has come along with the times. And now a new incarnation has begun.

Instead of being tucked away in an office, the Helpline has now been moved to the front desk area of the LGBT community center, making it more visible to anyone visiting Affirmations. The current plan is to integrate the Helpline with the main community center line so that all volunteers who answer the phone will be trained to give out the same information.

"Our goal is to make the front desk the epicenter of information," said Helpline Coordinator Johnny Jenkins. "Many of the Helpline calls come through the front desk anyway. They would have to give the person the Helpline number instead of being able to just give them the information they are looking for."

One big change will be in the efficiency of the calls. Jenkins said that many of the calls they receive are from out of state, because the hotline number is so widely available online. He said there are also many repeat calls where people just want to call and talk, or who try to use Helpline volunteers like a counselor.

"There are Helplines that are empathy-based, but most Helplines are there to give information and referrals. Because we don't have the resources, we are trying to put limits on repeat calls and stay focused on getting people connected to what help they need," said Jenkins.

On average the Helpline receives approximately 100 calls per month. People are looking for a range of information including how to come out, finding counseling, where to meet LGBT people, how to handle discrimination or mistreatment, and where to get HIV testing. Jenkins said that a common concern is where to find shelter that is safe for LGBT people.

Technology Impact

The number of calls has gone down over the years. Communications Director Cass Varner explained, "This is due to a few different factors. Since the move to the new building in 2007, Affirmations has undergone a number of transitions that have affected all programming. Most notable is the recent economic recession, which resulted in high employee turnover and a decrease in the hours of operation. Another contributing factor is the fact the overall culture of Helpline services is changing. Phones no longer serve as the primary means of communications for many people - especially within the 45 and under demographic. Folks are now utilizing texting, live chat and social media. Additionally, a large percentage of our calls currently come from outside of Michigan. This has really forced us to reevaluate the program as a whole and think more strategically about marketing and outreach."

The number of people coming into the center to seek services has increased however, and the front desk is the most obvious first stop. "It is clear that the Helpline program should be integrated into the culture of the center versus staying isolated in a closed off room. We feel strongly that long-term integration of the Helpline program and front desk services would better serve center users, and those seeking accessible mental health and advocacy services. Moving forward we plan to offer the community more information and referrals, provide a stronger reporting mechanism for the anti-bullying initiative, while also making Helpline staff and volunteers available to the public."

The anti-bullying initiative is a project in collaboration with area schools, and the single phone number provided will also serve as a place for youth to report bullying so that it can be tracked.

Affirmations' LGBT Helpline is dedicated to Jeff Kucharek, who provided the sustainable funding for the program following the launch of the capital campaign. And this year the HOPE Fund has funded the Helpline. Previous funders include the Jewish Fund, Birmingham Maple Clinic, DTE Foundation and the Ford Motor Company Fund.

A Legacy Program

The Helpline has come a long way since its humble beginnings 25 years ago. Gary Roberts, Affirmations first board president, remembers how it all got started. "The first call line was done by a group called MOHR, and it was through a grant that lasted 12 months. It was based in Detroit and it was one of the first programs they did. There were about ten to a dozen of us who worked on it and once word got out, we got a lot of calls. This was before the Internet and Google so it wasn't easy to get information like it is now. This was back in '86 or '87."

That line did not continue because the grant ran out. However several of the people involved decided to carry the idea forward. Along with Jeff Vitale, Roberts put together the paperwork to create Affirmations, with the Helpline being the organization's first big project. They promoted the Helpline through the local media and did outreach to schools to let teachers and counselors know it was available.

"We were fortunate. We had a couple of psychologists in our group and we all did training. There were a number of calls talking about their feelings about suicide. We got calls from kids who got thrown out by their parents. We built bridges with emergency shelters. We helped kids deal with schools and let them know what was going on. We didn't just take calls. It was trying to build a (safe) environment."

Affirmations grew based on what the phone calls told them was needed. "We told people about support groups," Roberts said. "Jan Stevenson created a youth group at the center and a lot of kids did that. But no matter what we did, the Helpline was the first contact. There were many times when people would call the Helpline to get a feel for Affirmations. It was a way for people to feel out if it was a safe environment. Could they get a sense of comfort from the person they were talking to?

"Most often we'd get a call from a young person asking questions. Then about a week later we'd see someone walking by three or four times, and the other youth would notice, like 'there's another one.' They'd be so nervous, and eventually they would come in. And most times they would tell us they had called the Helpline first."

The Helpline also served as the way to get information on social events for the LGBT community. "A lot of people would call to find out what was going on. There was no place to look that up. This was central for the community." Roberts said Affirmations helped organize substance-free parties where people could meet without having to go to the bars, in addition to the support groups. Programming and services has grown steadily from those humble beginnings.

The Helpline is currently offered Monday-Saturday from 3 - 9 p.m. The phone number is 1-800-398-GAYS.

For more information on other Affirmations services visit http://www.goaffiramtions.org.

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