BTL File Photo: Andrew Potter

Affirmations Says Goodbye To Founding Service

AJ TRAGER

FERNDALE - Big changes are coming to Affirmations next year as the center decides to reorganize its longest running service to the LGBT community: the Affirmations Hotline. The Hotline will no longer be a dedicated line for LGBT questions and concerns and will instead be integrated into the phone service that streams into Affirmations' front desk.

Twenty-seven years ago before Affirmations had a front desk, or even a building, a group of 20 people were trained to answer crisis calls from the LGBT community. With the help of a $50,000 grant from the City of Detroit to the Michigan Organization for Human Rights, a civil rights and anti-discrimination organization that disbanded in 1994, those individuals gathered to undergo intensive training on tough issues like how to respond to someone in a crisis to helping someone figure out the coming out process. They helped guide these callers through talking about health, HIV and other difficult situations with family. They received professional training from psychologists on how to handle suicidal calls and major moments of crisis before they could be handed over to larger organizations dedicated to that care, like the EMS.

Once the program went live, the team would work seven days a week from 4-10 p.m. and would reach hundreds of LGBT people of all ages from all over southeast Detroit. The Helpline was advertised in Metro Times and local media in hopes that teachers, counselors and other care professionals would know that the service was available.

"We spoke to people who had never talked to anyone about being gay. We spoke to people who were really isolated," said Jan Stevenson, member of the first Helpline team and first executive director of Affirmations. "It was an experience that truly changed my life."

After a year of serving the community through the aid of the grant, the helpline was in danger of closing down and was moved to Brian Wootton's basement. Shortly after that, members of the volunteer helpline team formed a board of directors and Affirmations was born. Speaking to the LGBT community on the Helpline told the board what the most needed services were for LGBT people in southeast Detroit. It was from there that 30 other various support groups were formed followed by Affirmations' second largest service, the teen support group

But this was the world before the internet and the technology boom. The only way to communicate long-distance with people was either through telephone or snail mail. There was a sense of isolation back before everyone was interconnected all day long and it was significantly harder to find a sense of community belonging.

Because people have access to more resources now, thanks to the internet, programs and services like the Affirmations' Helpline have had to adapt.

Over the last few years the Helpline has been utilized less and less by members of the community and the community has called the Helpline for different things than they did when it was first created. The line used to receive well over a hundred calls a month but now averages between 80 and 100 calls a month, Lydia Ahlum Hanson, director of programs at Affirmations, told BTL. Most of those calls are requests for information instead of individuals looking for help. And of those calls, 30 percent are hang ups or prank calls and 10 percent are from out of state.

The Helpline was moved from a private room to the Affirmations service desk in 2013 where cross-trained volunteers would answer the Helpline and perform other reception duties. The move was intended to make the front desk an epicenter of information.

"We've been looking at our programs and getting a sense of how to streamline and improve our services. Since this summer we have been working hard at improving services around our front desk and have now shifted the name to be known as the 'Welcome and Resource Desk,'" Hanson said.

The W&RD is manned 12 hours a day, six days a week and is a place for people looking for referrals, resources and support to get aid. After thinking about what programs are offered at the center, the Affirmations team decided that they simply didn't have the capacity to keep investing in the helpline model as they traditionally have known it.

"Hence our decision to transition the helpline into the Welcome and Resource Desk for local callers and then for those that are calling from not this region, which is actually a fair amount of our calls, they will be referred to national helplines which in many ways are better equipped to serve folks who aren't in our region," Hanson explained.

Hanson says that there has been a misconception on what the Helpline was to the LGBT community. She says that since Affirmations is not a crisis agency, it is instead the job of the organization to reroute those national or crisis calls to more national or crisis focused groups such as the Trevor Project or local organizations such as Equality Michigan or Common Ground. She hopes that the Helpline can shift to be more of a hub, connecting various callers to LGBT programs and services in the area.

Running a helpline can be fairly costly with training time as well as volunteering hours.

"We are very grateful for Rachel (Crandall) and Dave's (Ferger) dedicated time. We took a lot of care in making the decision and we understand of the impact of this being Affirmations' first program," Hanson said. "A whole lot has changed in LGBT services in the last 27 years. It is important, as an agency, that we continue to evolve with that. That evolution, our movement and especially what it means to be a local LGBT community center is what led us to that decision."

The announcement was made in early December to Helpline volunteer staff with the final transition to impact in early January. All incoming calls to the Helpline number will be redirected to the W&RD where trained volunteers will answer questions regarding information, resources, housing options, how to handle discrimination and mistreatment, minor crises and many others. To reach the W&RD, call 248-398-7105.


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