October 13, 2010

Distress Line volunteers provide immediate help

As published in The Erin Advocate

Sometimes, you just need someone to talk to, someone to listen without passing judgement, someone to give you good advice without forcing you to do anything. A person like that is sitting near a phone right now, ready to help.

Community Torchlight volunteers and staff have provided quality listening services to people in Wellington County, Dufferin County and the City of Guelph for more than 40 years.

The help is free, every day, around the clock. It is paid for mainly by the Ministry of Health, through the Local Health Integration Networks (LHINs), the United Way of Guelph-Wellington and fundraising efforts.

Known previously as the Distress Centre, Torchlight has expanded in recent years, and now has five different phone lines. Their Distress Line takes about 10,500 calls a year, with a team of 35-50 volunteers, each providing 16 hours of service per month.

They get 32 hours of in-class training and a period of professional mentoring before taking calls on their own. They range from senior citizens with time to contribute, to younger adults planning a career in social services.

"It feeds a sense of giving back to the community," said Executive Director Jesse Baynham. To find out more about volunteering, call 519-821-3760 or go on-line to dc-wd.org.

Torchlight has hosted The Walk for Suicide Awareness in Guelph and Orangeville, and has helped facilitate a series of Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training workshops.

In seeking financial donations from the public, Baynham said it is often families who have been affected by mental health issues who are especially inclined to support the agency. For those unaware of the issues, it can be a difficult message to get across.

Torchlight helps callers cope with a wide range of difficulties. "We are supporting some of the most disenfranchised people in the community," said Baynham.
Here are the various services (not long-distance calls from Erin):

• Distress Line – 519-821-3760 – a 24/7 listening service for people who are lonely, confused or in distress. Anonymity is assured, since Caller ID is not used. Referral to other sources of help is provided when requested.

• Crisis Line – 519-821-0140 – a 24/7 hotline for people experiencing a mental health or suicide crisis. This service is provided by professional staff, not volunteers, who are skilled in crisis assessment and de-escalation. This can be the first point of access for a range of services within the Crisis Intervention System of Guelph, Wellington and Dufferin.

The Crisis Line is the most expensive section of the Torchlight operation, made possible by funding of more than $400,000 annually from the Waterloo-Wellington LHIN. It is part of the provincial effort to reduce demands on hospitals, by assessing crisis situations and linking people quickly to the help they need.

• Youth Support Line – 519-821-5469 – an alternate way to contact Distress Line volunteers, an outreach to young people.

• Emergency Shelter Resource Line – 519-767-6594 – a 24/7 service for people in need of a warm, safe place to sleep. The volunteer will ask for the caller's name, gender and location, and direct them to an appropriate temporary shelter.

• Telecheck Dufferin – 519-415-3764 – a daily telephone check-in service that supports independent living for seniors 55 and older. Volunteers call the seniors for a brief chat, making sure they are not in need of help. If the senior cannot be contacted within one hour, the volunteer calls an emergency contact person.

The volunteers are mainly seniors. The team has grown in five years from four people to 23, making 17,531 calls in 2009-2010, including on weekends and holidays, serving 64 current clients. The Telecheck service is intended for residents of Orangeville / Dufferin, with funding provided by the Central West LHIN since 2008.

For Torchlight to provide such a service in the Erin area, it would require an interest among seniors, including potential volunteers, partnership with a local group and funding from the Waterloo-Wellington LHIN. Telecheck Dufferin got about $85,000 from the Central West LHIN in 2009-2010 as part of the Aging at Home strategy, and also gets support from the Dufferin Alzheimer's Society.

East Wellington Community Services (EWCS) offers a scaled down version of the service. Sherri Plourde, Manager of Seniors Services, personally calls to check in with eight seniors, two or three times a month, to see how they are doing. She would like to have a volunteer-based program, and have it funded and recognized as an essential service.

It is easier said than done, of course, since staff and volunteers are already busy with existing programs, and there are many projects that need funding. As always, public awareness and demand are the essential first steps.