A call to help in a crisis

Published: Thursday, January 12, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 11, 2006 at 2:21 p.m.
For more than 35 years, a local agency has been assisting members of the Alachua County community through personal crises, natural disasters and emotional emergencies.
That agency is the Alachua County Crisis Center, which operates a 24-hour hotline from a base in southeast Gainesville. The center began as a suicide and crisis prevention service but has evolved into a resource that helps counsel people through many situations, whether personal, work-related, or stress-related.
The center currently is in need of volunteers and will begin its next round of training sessions Saturday, Jan. 21. This will be the first of three sessions scheduled for this year.
Volunteers receive 60 hours of training, and afterward, are asked to commit to the program for at least six months, serving four phone shifts per month. Volunteers must be between the ages of 18 to 60, and need not have a high school diploma or special training to serve.
Volunteers also are asked to give one full Saturday for training and also three hours for two days a week until sessions are finished within six weeks. They also must participate in eight hours of training that involves observing other volunteers in action.
Dr. Marshall Knudson, director of the Crisis Center, said the number of training hours is always an immediate pre-screening to those who express sincere interest.
"We want people to understand this isn't simple or easy,'' he said. ''From the very beginning, we want them to know this training is intense and it helps bring out the quality of people engaging with each other."
He said training has always been geared toward finding special individuals who are capable of helping others in great distress.
"Volunteers must be capable also of engaging with people in their worst moments and when they are alone,'' Knudson explained. ''For many people, this is unrealistic. Many people do not complete the training because they find it doesn't fit them."
Although the center was founded as a suicide prevention resource, the majority of calls are not (suicide-related). "We're there to be with people when they are alone, with pain, sadness and traumatic experiences," Knudson said.
Dana Myers, the center's training coordinator, agrees.
"It's not just about crisis or suicide, we want to do whatever we can to help," Myers said. She describes the chance to volunteer as an opportunity to impact the lives of fellow community members and to gain life-enhancing communication skills.
"We handle a broad range of problems for people to call to talk, to vent about personal problems, or receive grief counseling,'' she said. ''We also provide counseling for suicide prevention."
"I believe the time these people give and the rigorous training they go through make volunteers incredible people that have energy. They want to be here and they have a sense of camaraderie supporting each other," Myers said.
She continued, "Volunteers must be committed, if anything. This is a fast-paced learning environment and we ask them that they not have anything going on in their lives that may affect their counseling. Classes for volunteers are capped at 40 students to allow for more one-on-one learning."
Currently, there are 110 volunteers, who Myers calls, "the heart and soul of the agency." They perform a wide variety of tasks such as training other volunteers, performing educational seminars, working at the call center and being a part of the mobile team.
Knudson said volunteering offers a rewarding experience.
"There is a sense of value from helping another person,'' he said. ''I hear people saying how they feel they've really made a difference in someone's life, and for many of our volunteers this is a very special experience."
"For others, it's the atmosphere here. I'm struck by the quality of people who volunteer. I enjoy engaging with these people of substance," Knudson said.
Taking calls at the Crisis Center is only part of the service provided. The center also operates a mobile team that is on call whenever someone needs face-to-face counseling. This team of specially trained volunteers responds to individuals having suicidal moments or are in life-threatening situations. The mobile team also is on hand when emergencies such as car accidents occur and victims need emotional help to deal with their loss.
The center also operates the Alachua County Emergency Management System's Rumor Control, a centralized number at (352) 264-6557 set up to receive information during natural disasters in order to dispel panic surrounding rumors that may circulate. Myers said people are often worried and scared during such events. She said during a six-week period during the 2004 hurricane season, the center received 40,000 calls.
The center also offers a community education program where workshops and lectures are conducted for community groups, churches or organizations.
All services offered by the Alachua Crisis Center are free of charge. To use services offered by the center, an interested person must be an Alachua County resident, but if not, prospective clients won't be turned away. People are allowed to remain anonymous. The center promises confidentiality, respect and anonymity to its clients.
The Crisis Center can be reached 24 hours a day at (352) 264-6789. Call Rumor Control at (352) 264-6557.
For more information about the center or to volunteer, call Myers at (352) 264-6779 before the Jan. 21 training session. The center's Web address is http://crisiscenter.alachua.fl.us.
"We are always in need of volunteers,'' said Myers. ''People with a caring heart and those that can be vested in the training process."
Teresa D. Southern can be reached at (352) 337-0373 or at southet@gvilleguardian.com.

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