'Warm Line' helps those going through tough times

Thursday, February 3, 2005

Nancy Johnson and Marilyn Rastl aren't perfect.

They both have had difficult pasts, hard enough to need professional counseling.

But they do have what many people need: a sympathetic ear.

Johnson and Rastl are two telephone operators for the Warm Line program, a telephone service available to people who are going through difficult times and need someone to talk to.

The program, which started about five years ago, is being utilized mostly by patrons of the Community Counseling Center, but Shirley Sides, the program coordinator, is trying to make the general public more aware.

"A lot of times, the calls are just people who don't have anybody else to talk to," Johnson said. "If they can just verbalize something, it helps their stress level and can keep a mental illness from escalating."

Johnson and Rastl have received calls from children, senior adults and young adults.

Johnson had an adult man call recently. His mother had died just days ago and he had found the Warm Line number in her belongings. He called the number to thank Johnson for being there.

"I was a connection for him with his mom," Johnson said. "But he was really hurting and needing to talk, too. So it served dual purposes that time."

Rastl had one child call from a closet, afraid of being abused. In those cases, she tells the child to call the police. The Warm Line isn't for suicidal cases, either. Those types of calls are redirected to the center's hotline.

Johnson said she likes to ask questions and get to know the callers, and try to use a sense of humor to bring ease to the situation.

"I try to talk to them like we're talking over a cup of coffee," she said.

John Hoodak, CCC administrator, said the program is run by consumers, by people who have used the counseling center before and are well on their way to recovery.

Each of the telephone workers completes intense training on how to deal with callers.

"I find it to be very helpful and meaningful because I've been in bad circumstances where I know what it's like to hurt," Rastl said. "It has helped me realize that my life may not be perfect, but I'm certainly very blessed."

Johnson agreed.

"It's showed me how far I've come," she said. "Not that I'm better than the callers, but it helps me understand where they're coming from. I've shown that I've changed and that I've grown and you don't have to be stuck. So many people get a medical diagnosis and just stay there in the rut. By being able to say 'I used to be where you're at and you don't have to stay there either,' I can be an encouragement to them."

The Warm Line -- 651-3642 or toll free at (877) 626-0638 -- is available from 4 to 10 p.m. daily. The telephone workers cover three-hour shifts. A Department of Mental Health state grant for $25,000 pays for the telephone workers.

Callers often talk about difficult break-ups, recent deaths or problems with mental illnesses.

"I'd like to see more military families know about the service," Johnson said. "They're under so much stress."

The program came about because so many people were calling the CCC's hotline for non-emergency situations, Hoodak said.

"Many of our people we see live alone and the evenings and weekends are particularly hard for many of those folks," Hoodak said. "It enables them to talk with someone who can provide support over the phone. It's a real service for consumers, but it relieves the pressure on the emergency services that we provide."

Hoodak said the center gets roughly 60 Warm Line calls a month. The number is much higher during holiday periods.

bmiller@semissourian.com

243-6635

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