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No Place Like Home for Volunteering

Being able to take calls at their residences--or via pager--is an incentive for hotline helpers.


Jan sits poised by the phone from 6 p.m. to midnight, waiting for the calls. Sometimes they are emergencies--victims of abuse, unsure how to cope. Sometimes people just want to talk.

All the callers are reaching out for a human voice, and one night a week they find Jan, a volunteer for the Pasadena YWCA's rape and battering hotline, at the other end of the line.

The electronic lifeline these callers cling to does not plug into a phone bank room full of hotline operators. Jan takes these cries for help at her home in South Pasadena. On busy nights, she answers calls from work, and when life gets even more hectic, she is linked to the hotline by her pager.

For Jan, not being confined to one location makes it possible to juggle volunteering with her roles as a wife, mother of an 11-year-old son and videotape editor at a local television station. "Things can get pretty wild around here," she said.

Across Southern California, many hotlines rely on an interchange of an answering service, home phones and pagers to link callers with a sympathetic voice.

Rather than causing isolation, some communications experts say, technology can bring people together in different ways and enhance activities such as volunteerism.

"Technology, rather than inhibiting or thwarting communication, facilitates it," said Jeffrey Cole, director of UCLA's Center for Communication Policy. "This is a prime example of the whole nature of volunteering--[in this case] you can volunteer from home, and time is not wasted between calls."

Although many hotlines have been staffed by home-based volunteers for the past 20 years, communications experts say this model of volunteerism is an indication that telecommuting has broad applications beyond the workplace.

The convenience of taking calls at home is a powerful incentive for many volunteers, who say that flexibility makes it possible for them to donate their time at all.

Recruiting volunteers is easier when people find out they do not have to go out to a phone bank once a week, hotline directors say. Most hotlines currently have only one or two people working during a shift, taking calls ranging from suicide threats to rape victims' cries for help.

That's what attracted volunteers such as Melinda, a 40-year-old community college instructor. Like other volunteers, she asked to be identified only by her first name to protect her privacy and that of her callers.

Melinda worked the early morning shift for the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women hotline for more than two years.

"I could get up and wander around in my pajamas and drink coffee," she said. Answering calls from home also gave her more control over her environment, said Melinda, who lives alone.

Many rape crisis and sexual assault programs began in living rooms in the 1970s, using volunteers working out of their homes, because the groups lacked funding to keep offices open 24 hours a day.

"It's one of the things that makes it attractive to people--you don't have to come to a boiler room or phone room, and still make a contribution," said commission hotline coordinator Andrea Thompson Adam.


Like those who work with other hotlines, the nearly 100 volunteers at the commission get extensive training before they hit the phones, and have a resource and referral book at their fingertips.

The commission is also exploring new technology such as the Internet. Not all crisis groups, however, are using the latest technology--many still lack a fax machine, not to mention a web site.

Being able to volunteer from home was a big incentive for Lisa, a 27-year-old office manager in Arcadia who works for the Pasadena YWCA hotline.

"It came as a pleasant surprise. When you're in a room, you feel trapped. At least when you're at home you can get work done," said Lisa, who washes dishes and does paperwork as she waits for the phone to ring. "We're all really busy, but this is . . . just taking the time to help people."

The convenience of this arrangement also allows people who cannot leave their homes--such as pregnant women, the disabled and others--to participate in society, Cole said.

Cynthia, a 36-year-old volunteer for the Pasadena YWCA hotline, said that although working from home has saved her the need for a baby sitter for her children, at first she was surprised she would be taking calls alone in her living room.

"I thought it would be better to be able to ask questions of the supervisors," she said. "It was kind of scary at first when I heard we'd be doing it from home."

Cynthia's concern represents a common fear about new technology, experts said--that it will increase isolation and decrease human interaction.

Some may miss the socialization that comes in an office environment, said A. Michael Noll, professor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication. "Part of it is that energy from a room, the ability to bump into colleagues," he said.

The commission and the Pasadena hotline, like others, have regular staff meetings to provide that interaction.

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