April 28th, 2009

Counsellor’s Notebook: A Helpliner’s Story

One of AWARE’s helpliners tells why she continues to volunteer and what she has learnt from it.

“Any woman can call the Aware helpline for phone counseling and referral services. Occasionally we get a male caller asking for information for a female friend. Although this helpline has been in existence for the last 15 years, there is a degree of confusion about what exactly we do due to our need to protect the identity of our helpliners and callers. This personal account will hopefully demystify things.

I have been an Aware helpliner since 2005. I man the helpline at least twice a month, and each shift is three hours long. If you include traveling time, this easily translates to half a day twice a month or one day per month.

Before we started manning the helpline, we attended weekly training sessions for three months. After being trained our obligation is to help man the helpline for a year. Helpliners are tested and monitored for competency as helpliners way after our training has ended. All helpliners are volunteers and are not paid. Of my original batch, only two other ladies remain. Of them one is still active in Aware and the second is working at Aware part-time.

My main reason for becoming a helpliner was altruistic, just as many others who volunteer: I wanted to help. I also wanted to acquire telephone counseling skills, and Aware provided the training. In helping, I knew I would feel good about myself. I found that I got so much more than that.

In the initial months of manning helpline, I found myself leaving each shift emotionally drained, even weepy. There are many women out there facing multiple life challenges with their lives in dire states. Then I noticed how I started bringing comfort food with me – chocolate, cookies and other munchies.

It took a while but I learnt to disassociate myself from the pain callers were experiencing. I learnt to recognize that my time on the helpline was the caller’s time. Aware was probably her last resort. If I gave in to emotions and cried alongside her, I might be losing this one opportunity to be of service to her. If I gave up on her, she would be likely to do so too. In addition, I needed to remember that her life situation was hers. I could listen, suggest, encourage, even challenge gently but it was still her life and her decision to make. There was no me. It was all about her.

My confidence in my ability as a helpliner grew with time and experience. The Aware Direct Services staff (one full-timer then, we now have one full-timer and two part-timers) would be on hand to debrief after calls, and this added my knowledge. When my obligatory one year was up, I just kept going.  I now possessed not only the skills of a counselor and knowledge of the types of referral services available in Singapore but also the experience that could only be acquired with time.

I have affirmed the strength of callers who plough on against all odds. I have attempted to extend hugs of love over the phone. I have smiled, laughed, even cried (in my heart) with my callers. I have nothing but love and good wishes for each of them. And I have never expected anything in return.

Being a helpliner has taught me the difference between empathy and sympathy; compassion and pity; and listening with the ear and heart. Being a helpliner has caused me to reflect on my life, my own challenges and the many things I have to be grateful for. In short, being a helpliner has made me a better person – a better daughter, friend, and woman.

As women, we are able to support one another in a way men cannot. As a woman, I can empathize with heartaches because I have lived through my own share. As a woman and a helpliner, I am abandoning lofty notions of saving the world; instead I am humbling myself in lifting up one person at a time. It all boils down to that one person on the other end of the line.

With this recent state of events at Aware, the helpliners are forging on and it is still business as usual. However the current Exco have been rude to staff, questioned operations, asked to observe and attempted to enter the helpline room. The future of the Aware helpline which has been available to all women in Singapore for the last 15 years is now hanging by a thread.”

AWARE’s Direct Services are designed to support women achieve growth and psychological peace of mind. Whether it is learning to handle and resolve a current life crisis, dealing with a painful past, adjusting to change or seeking out new directions, our services can help individuals identify personal areas of improvement, achieve positive change, and realise their highest potential. The Aware Helpline attends to callers in need of phone counseling and provides referral services. The women you’ll speak with have undergone professional training that prepares them to help you with a variety of concerns.

If your are interested in becoming a helpliner, send an email to operations@aware.org.sg or call AWARE at 6779 7137

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