"How many of you have had the experience of being by yourself (after school) without a grown-up there?" Connie Underhill asked about 400 fourth- to sixth-grade students at Topaz Elementary School in Placentia. A forest of hands rose.
Underhill asked students to keep their hands up and raise their other hands if they sometimes take care of siblings without adult help. The "forest" became nearly twice as thick.
Underhill, president of the board of directors for PhoneFriend, the first Orange County help line for latchkey children, took the students' responses matter-of-factly. In her talk last Friday, she shared ideas on appropriate behavior and safety precautions for children who are home alone. She also introduced the students to a gold puppet named "P.F.," the new help-line's mascot.
Children Can Call
Underhill told the students they can call the PhoneFriend number, (714) 524-1000, free of charge for help after school with minor first-aid problems, to hear a joke or just to talk about what's on their minds. "We can probably even help you concoct the excuses you need to explain to (your) teacher why you didn't get your homework done," she said, laughing.
The assembly was the first in a series of school presentations on the help line, which started up last Friday with two telephone extensions at St. Jude Hospital in Yorba Linda, in office space donated by the hospital. (PhoneFriend will operate from 2:30 to 6:30 p.m. on school days, but may close during the summer.)
Newport Beach residents also may start a PhoneFriend line soon, Underhill said. And Nancy Noble, child care coordinator for the City of Irvine, said she hopes to launch one in Irvine later this year. The first PhoneFriend project was started by an American Assn. of University Women chapter at Pennsylvania State University in State College, Pa., in 1982. This project became a model for more than 30 loosely affiliated PhoneFriend services across the country.
Underhill's project, which is sponsored by a nonprofit organization called the Placentia-Yorba Linda Assistance Line Inc., is intended just for unsupervised elementary children in the Placentia and Yorba Linda school districts. Those districts include parts of Anaheim, Brea and Fullerton.
Nancy Claxton, administrator of the Orange County Department of Education's child-care program, said it's difficult to estimate how many latchkey children live in Orange County "because parents do not wish to admit they're leaving their children alone." However, Claxton added, a recent state survey showed that 600,000 to 800,000 California elementary school children lack adequate before- and after-school care. Eight percent of those children live in Orange County, she said.
PhoneFriend gives youngsters a chance to air non-emergency concerns, according to Underhill, a Placentia resident whom other PhoneFriend board members said was primarily responsible for establishing the local help line. Underhill, a former teacher who is president of both the Topaz and Ruby Drive Elementary schools' Parent-Teacher Assns., said PhoneFriend is a "warm line" that "really exists just to help the child who wants to reach out and touch someone." In a sense, she added, each PhoneFriend volunteer will serve as a "surrogate mom." (PhoneFriend now has seven trained volunteers, and an additional five will complete instruction by late February. The only male volunteer is Underhill's 16-year-old son, Tom.)
Still, Underhill said, "we won't be encouraging personal relationships with the child (who calls) . . . because we want him to feel that every person is qualified to help him (and) a lot of these children have problems terminating relationships with people. . . We're trying to reduce some of (their) stresses and bad feelings . . . to help (them) gain trust and confidence in (other) people" and themselves, she said.
PhoneFriend workers are subjected to both state and FBI fingerprint checks, Underhill said. In addition, the volunteers must undergo nine hours of training before taking calls. Underhill said she and other PhoneFriend board members and consultants--including family counselors, educators and police officers--teach volunteers how to listen non-judgmentally, build children's self-esteem and deal with difficult situations.
The PhoneFriend line rang about 50 times during its first afternoon in operation, according to Underhill.
Some children just requested jokes (the volunteers, who had forgotten to bring a joke book, racked their memories for grade-school humor); some hung up without saying anything, and a few "bored boys" called to complain about having nothing to do.
"I think they're calling just to see if we're really here," observed Sherley DeStefano, a PhoneFriend board member who answered calls Friday. Among her callers was a girl who "likes this boy, but he thinks she's a dirt ball," she said.