Help line volunteers deal with everything from recipe requests to suicide threats

Nunavut's telephone trouble-shooters


In her 17 years as the woman behind the Nunavut Kamatsiaqtut help line, Sheila Levy has heard it all.

Some kids call for advice on how to stop chewing their fingernails. One Christmas Day, someone once phoned for a decent stuffing recipe.

Other callers say they have rifle barrels pressed against their heads, and ask for one good reason why they shouldn't pull the trigger.

Those calls are the ones volunteers fear the most, Levy says.

"It's very scary, no question, and I hope you don't get one," she tells 10 new volunteers gathered around a conference table in Inuksuk High School's stuffy library, May 24. They've come to learn how to staff Kamatsiaqtut's two telephones, which operate every night between 7 p.m. and midnight.

Levy reminds the volunteers that even the most despondent callers made the choice to pick up the telephone. "Keep that in the back of your head."

None of the volunteers can be identified in print. Levy says the two "non-negotiable" conditions of working at the help line are that volunteers may never give their names to callers, and they can never tell anyone the help line's physical location.

One volunteer has endured a number of suicides in her family and feels the help line is the best way to channel her energy.

Levy asks the volunteers to name issues they expect to deal with while working on the line. They call out a distressingly familiar list of Nunavut's social problems: suicide, homelessness, abuse, alcohol, pregnancy, depression. But there's one type of call no one has mentioned.

"Nobody has said anything about crank calls," Levy says. While Kamatsiaqtut went five years before getting its first crank call and receives far fewer than southern help lines, they do happen, Levy warns.

One night a group of kids phoned 10 times in a row before the volunteers took the phone off the hook for 10 minutes (it worked). There is also the occasional obscene phone call.

"We have had calls from some people who think it's a 900 number instead of an 800 number," Levy says.

Working on the help line is like walking a conversational knife-edge. Volun­teers must be able to coax information out of callers, without pestering them or getting mired in unnecessary details.

More difficult, they must learn how to look beyond a caller's words and gauge their feelings. Merely doling out advice doesn't work, Levy says: callers need to "own" their solutions, and merely doing what they've been told doesn't accomplish that.

"Put it to them, let them evaluate the suggestion," she says. "You want to do it in a way that gives them power, makes them feel as though they have control over their life."

Volunteers must undergo 12 to 15 hours of training and sit in on a few shifts before they actually staff a phone line, and those first few evenings are shared with seasoned veterans.

Kamatsiaqtut runs on a shoestring budget with funds from the Government of Nunavut, the Kativik Regional Government in Nunavik, an annual fundraising banquet and gifts in kind from local businesses. That means volunteers are the organization's backbone, Levy says.

It also means volunteers must show up when they're scheduled for a shift, or find a replacement.

"If you choose to become a volunteer you should be quite proud," she tells the room. "You're joining an elite group I think, but then I'm biased."

Levy asks if everyone still wants to commit. Everyone says yes. Only 10 more hours of training to go.

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