Reach Out and Help Someone

Potential suicide. Sexual anxiety. Adolescent angst. No matter how hung-up you are, the counselors at Switchboard of Miami won't hang up -- or give up -- on you.

Even when Chuck and the hotline's other counselors have saved a life, few people call or write to say thanks. "There's very little gratitude," Chuck notes; nevertheless, the twenty staff members and volunteers who take phone calls during a 24-hour period get other satisfactions. "You go home from a shift feeling that Miami's a little better," he points out.

For 26 years the Switchboard of Miami, located in the Brickell area, has been making life easier for many in Dade County, first for college students and hippies, later for the entire community. Now it is a $1.7 million a year operation whose 40 staffers and 75 volunteers offer more than just phone help; that includes in-person counseling for teens, antidrug and AIDS-prevention efforts in schools and in the Annie Coleman Gardens Housing Development, and a few other initiatives, including an after-school T-shirt business that serves as a mentoring and apprenticeship program. (The largest share of its revenues, 47 percent, comes from the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, with the United Way providing 18 percent of the funding and the federal government 16 percent.)

Still, the heart of the organization remains the helpline, the county's only comprehensive 24-hour counseling, crisis intervention, and information and referral hotline. Since the late Sixties it has continued to be a window into the underside of life in sunny Miami, even as its calls have evolved from desperate inquiries about bad acid to questions about AIDS. Through it all one thing has remained constant: "There's so many people with so many problems," says Jerry, a retired Miami Beach police department administrator who works the Friday overnight shift. "It's like the old TV show -- there are seven million stories in the naked city." These are a few of them.

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The dedicated people who field all these calls are, in some ways, like a special breed of telemarketer. "We're selling life," says Denise, a Southern Bell technician who previously worked as a sales rep for the company for a few years. At Southern Bell she learned how to prod people subtly to think about the advantages that new phone features could bring them. "Similarly, I'm going to try to help people figure out what benefits they can get in their lives," she explains. "It's not very directive. You ask, 'What can you do tonight to make yourself feel better? What do you like to do?'" She adds proudly, "I can talk to people easily."

She can use this skill, if necessary, to keep a person on the line long enough to ask police to trace a call during a life-threatening emergency. Curiously, she now works in Southern Bell's "networking center," which is responsible for implementing all trace requests, and she's actually been in the center when the helpline has requested a phone trace, information used by rescue teams to go to the location of someone in imminent danger. It is, however, the operators' ability to project empathy and warmth, rather than any sophisticated technology, that ultimately keeps people alive.

When Chuck faces a potentially lethal crisis, for instance, he pulls out all the stops in his relentless effort to convince a person that life is worth living. He is, basically, trying to close a very valuable deal. When needed he'll abandon the low-key style favored by most counselors and turn on all the extroverted charm he can muster, as if the caller might be made to believe that a world in which such friendliness exists might not be so bad after all.

Take the morose girl who calls a short while into Chuck's recent Thursday-night stint. She clearly needs encouragement, and as the call progresses she'll get more and more of it. Early on he senses how fragile she really is, and, seeking to make a connection, asks -- and gets -- her first name, Rita. She had phoned the night before to speak to another counselor, and in a halting, fuzzy voice she now tells Chuck, "I have a problem. I still feel like killing myself." She's in a program for emotionally handicapped kids and, she says, both her parents beat her.

"Do you want to report your parents for abuse?" he asks.
"I called HRS but they didn't do anything. I showed them the bruises but they didn't care."

He tries to reassure her that she's a credible person, and if she continues to report the abuse, the social services agency will take some action.

"Nobody cares."
"We care, I assure you. I can't run out there and stop it, but I can report it to HRS. They generally take reports from us seriously. I'd be happy to take your full name and address and phone number."

She won't give him that information and soon begins harping, in a childlike way, on what has helped make her so depressed.

"Everyone hates me," she says, her voice tinged with a petulant sadness.
"Do you think I hate you?"
"Yes."

"Really? Well, let me share with you -- the only person I can truly speak for is me. I do not hate you."

"You're just paid to say that."
"I beg your pardon. I'm not paid to say that. I'm not paid at all here. Rita, I'm a volunteer." He sounds, oddly enough, almost like an offended gentleman in some drawing-room comedy.

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