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.

It has not been easy for Chuck to strike a balance between caring too much and caring too little. "You can't do this work effectively unless you're relatively empathetic, but if you overempathize, you take the problems home with you," he points out -- and ultimately become ineffective. On the other hand one risks becoming mechanical and insensitive. This issue became so pressing that Chuck dropped out twice from the hotline in the Seventies, once for six months in 1974, the other time for a year in 1977. "Both times, I felt myself becoming jaded," he says. He noticed that he was getting impatient with callers, waiting for them to tell their stories so he could place them in a category -- such as "teen pregnancy" -- and then offer them a standard response. In recent years he has been able to find a middle ground between the extremes of being oversensitive or blase.

He's certainly had plenty of time to work on his counseling style. When Chuck first volunteered for the switchboard, the organization and Miami were very different from the way they are now.

Back then he was a 25-year-old air force officer at the Homestead air base who was seeking a place to offer his help. Chuck showed up one spring day in 1971 at the two-room switchboard office in the Center for Dialogue building abutting a church on NW 26th Avenue. When this air force officer, with his short hair and tie, came into the office, he saw a room covered in black with an upside-down American flag painted on the ceiling. A long-haired young man with a beard, headband, and beads came around a corner to greet him, and Chuck said, "I'm sorry, I'm in the wrong place."

It was indeed the Switchboard of Miami, founded in 1968 by students at Miami-Dade Community College as a housing referral service and eventually evolving into an emergency hotline for the hippie community and other young people. The Center for Dialogue was then a magnet for radical groups, and Chuck recalls walking down the hallway and seeing bullet holes from a shooting incident involving the cops and a black militant wanted for a school bombing. "It was a very exciting time," Chuck remembers, and part of that intensity was found in his sometimes risky volunteer work.

On his very first call after completing his training, he listened to a young man shouting, "We've got an overdose here, man. You better get here now!" At the time -- and for the first five or so years of its operation -- rather than call police or fire-rescue squads, the switchboard sent out its own volunteers on emergencies. "There was so much polarization then that calling them could get our callers arrested," Chuck recalls. He and another counselor rushed over to an old third-story apartment only to find the door wide open, and, inside the bedroom, a young "freak" in shorts sprawled across a bed, unconscious. Chuck tried CPR and couldn't revive him. Then they called police to report the death.

A lot of the calls in those years involved illegal drugs. Callers were generally younger and they sometimes wanted to know answers to such questions as, "Is the orange acid the good stuff?"

The truly desperate also turned to the switchboard then as they do now. Once, in the late Seventies, Chuck got a call from a man who'd lost his job as a janitor after eighteen years at the same firm. He said he planned to kill himself. "I'm just calling to say goodbye," the man told Chuck, a loaded gun laying ready next to him. Chuck convinced the caller to let him and another counselor visit, and when Chuck and a female colleague arrived they encountered a bizarre scene: a polite, heavyset man with a gun in his belt who served them tea and cookies while he spoke about blowing off his head. While talking to him they found he cared a lot about a young boy he mentored as part of a Big Brothers-style program. They got him to think about the impact his death might have on his young friend, and then, when he left the gun on a coffee table to go back into the kitchen, Chuck removed the bullets. Before they left they helped him realize there were friends who could perhaps assist him in finding work and a young boy who would miss him. Then they all hugged each other, and when Chuck walked out he felt drained but exhilarated.

"It felt great," he remembers. "We'd made a difference for someone I liked and kept him from dying."

In a few cases even the most determined counselor can't save a life. Chuck has had the horrifying experience of listening on the phone to a woman getting steadily weaker after taking 200 Valium. The rescue crew arrived too late to save her.

Almost always, though, his intervention makes a difference. He once kept a frightened twelve-year-old girl on the phone as he summoned HRS caseworkers to her house; all the while he heard her father pounding on the door, trying to get in and beat her up. The week before he'd broken her arm.

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