By HEATHER NELLIS
Recorder News Staff
The Sexual Assault Support Services Program of Montgomery County is seeking volunteers to help staff its 24-hour crisis hotline.
Coordinator Veronica Parks said the program has a shortage of volunteers, who help facilitate clients' access to the free and confidential services.
They're available to anyone of any age who has experienced a sexual assault, or who has been affected by someone else's assault.
Volunteers provide information, referral services, counseling and advocacy to victims who seek help through the hotline at 1-866-307-4086.
Thirty hours of training is required to prepare volunteers for that work, and Parks says it's free, and flexible for people's schedules, even with some online training options.
Volunteers, who remain anonymous, learn the psychological aspects of sexual assault and abuse, effective counseling techniques, and how to assist survivors of sexual assault and their families using crisis intervention skills.
In addition, staff and volunteers can meet with victims at emergency rooms to provide information and support as the victim is examined, and can also accompany them to police agencies and/or court appearances.
When a victim calls the hotline, a person answers, takes the caller's information, and it's forwarded to the volunteer who's on call. There is no call center a volunteer has to report to, so it gives the volunteer flexibility to go about their lives, yet ensures quick response to the hotline calls.
A local named Kim said she signed up to volunteer about 2 1/2 years ago. She said every month, she and the other volunteers set up a monthly schedule in which each person signs up for hours and times they are available.
"It varies based on availability, but then when you're signed up, you just take the calls when they come in," Kim said. "We don't have to go anywhere, we just go on with our days, and the calls come in, and we take it from there."
"It can be as time-consuming as you want it to be," Kim continued. "You can make your own hours, and it's flexible, so it doesn't always have to be the same."
Parks said in 2012, the program served 60 clients in Montgomery County, and 14 people called the hotline. But many more took advantage of the services by requesting them in other ways -- 190 counseling sessions, 97 telephone counseling sessions, and 121 instances of advocacy and accompaniment.
Sometimes, Kim said service is as simple as lending an ear to someone who wants to talk.
"We take care of each call individually," she said. "Each person has different needs, and they might be at a different stage -- just the beginning, in the middle, or maybe something happened years ago. We talk to the person to find out what they need, and some people might just want to talk."
In her experience, other victims have sought someone to be an advocate for them at a hospital after an assault, while others might want a referral to a more-permanent counseling service.
Kim said she hasn't personally escorted anyone to a court appearance or to a police agency, but said she feels comfortable enough with her volunteer leader to call her for support or to seek answers to help guide her with that experience if it ever arises.
"We have a really good support system," she said. "I can contact my volunteer leader at any time."
Kim said that support system additionally stems to a monthly meeting and additional training as needed.
"We're always getting updated on new things of what we should know, and how to better help people," she said. "We can also do training on our own, by borrowing and reading books that are available."
"We never feel like we're alone," Kim added. "There's always support, and an answer from someone who wants to help you."
Kim said she got involved because she wanted to help people, particularly women.
"As a woman, I really feel like we should help each other. I know men have been victims too, so I don't mean to discount that, but I think women should help each other in whatever way we can, and this is a way for me to do it," she said.
The work is rewarding, too, Kim said.
"People are grateful someone is there to listen, because a lot of times, no one is there to listen to them," she said. "With this program, people are a little more open because of the confidentiality and anonymity aspect, and when they're more open, we can help them more, because we don't know who they are, and you can just listen. That's what people need, is someone to listen, and not judge."
The program is sponsored by Planned Parenthood Mohawk Hudson, and training is paid for with grants, Parks said.
Eligible volunteers will be at least 18-years-old, and have their own transportation, and phone with service.
Those interested in volunteering can reach Parks by calling 842-0285 ext. 605, or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org by April 22.