What's it like to be a RAINN online hotline volunteer?
November 26, 2013 9:12 PM   Subscribe

I'm thinking of volunteering for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, specifically their online hotline. Before I dive in, I'm hoping to find someone with RAINN (or comparable) experience who could speak a little beyond what's on the website as to the day-to-day of working on the online hotline, if I should expect much contact with other volunteers or paid staff, favorite/least favorite parts, anything to know going in, etc.

I'd also look really seriously at volunteering at the local rape crisis center, if my job situation settles enough next year. So I'm also wondering if this would be at all good preparation for that, or if I should really look at it as a wholly separate type of role (which would also be fine.)

Personal details: late twenties, cis female, 9-5 office job and relatively flexible off-hours. I'm in DC, so the training should be pretty straightforward. I have a fair amount of volunteer experience in a bunch of different jobs, and recently quit being a volunteer EMT (which I loved; intense jobs are fine, but I have a regular sleep pattern for the first time in years and I'd love to keep it that way for a little while if possible.)

Other genius ideas in a similar vein very much welcome. Thanks, all!
posted by jameaterblues to Human Relations (7 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I can't speak to volunteering on an online hotline, but I volunteer in-person at a crisis line telephone room.

Personally, I think it is pretty valuable to be volunteering with a group of other people, so that way you have people to talk to after the emotionally intense calls, joke with in-between calls etc. I think going solo on this kind of thing could be really isolating and draining. I am not sure what kind of interface they have set up for those who volunteer on-line to connect with their other volunteers, but I feel like this would be a thing to consider.

Another thing to consider is the fact this kind of work can bring up a lot of emotions. We had an 6 or 8 week training for the organization I volunteer with and I found myself feeling frustrated/depleted after some of our sessions realizing I had "blocked out" a lot of previous painful times in my life. Each week our training covered a topic we might encounter while talking with someone on the phone (so a week for domestic violence, a week for issues of youth, etc.) It was something of a catalyst for getting past those memories in the end, but it was not something I had expected initially (even though we had been advised about this in the beginning). I am not sure where you may be at, but again, another thing to think about.

The organization I volunteer with also runs a lot of other programs for the community dealing with mental health issues, bullying, domestic violence etc. They always let us know when they are looking for volunteers for an event or for regular help with any of those other programs. It is a nice way to dabble in a bit of everything. If you find a local organization to volunteer with, you may find yourself with some of the same kind of opportunities.

I have personally found my time on the crisis line to be a really rewarding and valuable experience. Though it is difficult emotionally at times, I genuinely enjoy going to my shift and have met a lot of awesome people. Good luck with your search for volunteer work! (And if you might have any questions, please feel free to memail me.)
posted by sevenofspades at 9:42 PM on November 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't have any experience working for RAINN, but I volunteered as a counselor for several years at my local rape crisis center. We trained with people who worked on the clinic's phone hotline, although I worked in a different area. (Counseling and advocacy with survivors who came into the ER. If you ever decide to volunteer at your local center, your background might make you a good match for this; feel free to memail me.)

Hopefully, someone will chime in with more specific info, but in the meantime, here are a few things that might be worth knowing.

Before we began volunteering, we all underwent a 40 hour training to become "certified" rape crisis counselors. The training emphasized the empowerment model, which means that the goal in every interaction with a survivor is to offer them information and to support them in their choices, whatever those choices might be. To facilitate this, we learned a lot about the different kinds resources available in our area (domestic violence shelters, support systems for LGBT youth, etc.) and some of the major issues confronting different populations. Additionally, we practiced some basic counseling techniques - reflecting people's emotions back to them ("that sounds really scary") avoiding asking questions that could be understood as undermining ("why did you decide to do that?") etc. Pretty simple stuff, in theory, but in practice, it was incredibly useful during the difficult conversations. The training itself was very intense. To be honest, I think I'm a better friend and person for having done it. I don't say that lightly - it was life-changing.

I'm not sure what RAINN's training looks like, obviously, but I'm fairly confident that the online hotline will also emphasize providing resources to survivors (I bet they'll give you a manual you'll become very familiar with) and also listening without judgment. That said, one thing that was really emphasized to the phone volunteers during our training was that they were not encouraged to get into hours-long conversations with people - they were supposed to contain the conversation to a certain extent, and focus on getting people the kind of professional help they needed. We're not trained therapists and we were never expected to take on that kind of burden.

The other thing to expect is burn-out. In training, they'll talk a lot about self-care. Take it seriously. It's great you want to do this. I think you'll be really glad you did. Good luck!
posted by pretentious illiterate at 9:52 PM on November 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Years ago I worked for a crime victims center that handled with a lot of sexual violence cases (adult, child and adult survivor). The way we handled it was calls were routed to the volunteer's phone. The volunteers weren't working in a phone bank with other people.

Volunteers could, and did, call staff members to debrief and decompress. We tried to stay in very close contact with our volunteers. That was for their mental health and to ensure they were following the guidelines. We also wanted them to feel connected to the agency and to continue to volunteer. Training took a long time and we invested a lot of into our volunteer pool.

It's hard work and sometimes incredibly frustrating. I'd love to tell you that there's not a lasting impact to my thought processes, but I still think about the people I met on that job frequently. And I always, always double check the locks.
posted by 26.2 at 9:54 PM on November 26, 2013

Several people I know have made use of RAINN. Many have had very positive experiences. However, some found that the volunteers really vary in their sensitivity to women in abusive relationships, especially abusive marriages. So I'd spend some time learning about how to support women and let them feel in control and also not minimize sexual abuse in the marriage.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 10:40 PM on November 26, 2013

My roommate volunteered for a crisis hotline. She seemed to do the overnight shift sometimes because she would lay in the common area with her phone overnight when she had to do it. I can't help with the day-to-day stuff and she obviously found it very fulfilling. When we talked about it she seemed to sense that she had helped people. But the only call I ever happened to hear her take was cut short and she informed me it was a masturbater, meaning a guy who calls the line to hear a woman's voice I guess? I don't know how common that is, but she didn't seem phased by it.
posted by AppleTurnover at 10:46 PM on November 26, 2013

I volunteered quite a while ago in Philly at an organization called Women Organized against Rape. I was not drawn to phone counseling (this was before the days of on-line counseling) or staying available at the designated medical facilities where rape victims were taken for treatment. Both are needed activities, just not where I wanted to focus my efforts. Instead, I went to court with people who prosecuted their perpetrators, and not all were women, despite the organization's name. This was incredibly meaningful to me, and from the thanks I often received from the victims, meaningful to them as well.

I ended up mostly attending preliminary hearings for juvenile victims, offering my support and companionship for kids and their supporters during preliminary hearings, often their first real experience of the legal system. We Court Companions had special status, since juvenile court appearances are "closed" to the public, so were permitted to sit with the families and the victim, sometimes very young, with parents that often came without other support. Sexual abuse frequently occurs within families, and family members often choose sides, against the supportive parent. It was astonishing how the victims were blamed, even 6 year olds! I did this once a week for about 5 years, and think it was among the most rewarding and meaningful things I have ever done.

I'm not familiar with RAINN, but they might offer this service to their clients, and if prosecution is your personal issue, as it was mine, it might be incredibly rewarding to serve in that arena.
posted by citygirl at 7:58 AM on November 27, 2013

"Other genius ideas in a similar vein very much welcome."

You could also look at volunteering at a homeless shelter or homeless outreach program. I have done volunteer work at a homeless shelter. I have had a class on homelessness. I am currently homeless and was sexually abused as a child. Sexual abuse has a lot more impact on the lives of the victims than many people realize. As I understand it, fairly high percentages of homeless women are former victims or even ended up on the street due to fleeing an abusive relationship.

I have done my share of giving support to rape victims I personally knew. I will give you one piece of advice: You need to be sure to not be emotionally reactive to their story -- you need to not express horror, pity, shock, etc. They need to not feel bad about telling you. They need to feel okay about telling you and not like they have harmed you. Feeling like they have psychologically harmed you can become just one more negative feeling tearing them apart.

They may feel shame, fear, guilt and a whole lot of other things. They need to know those are normal reactions and are in no way evidence that they are somehow guilty of something. You need to honor the fact that they already lived through this terrible thing. Respect them. Validate them. Focus on getting them resources to solve problems. Be patient with the fact that they are mired in strong emotion but do not let yourself get similarly mired. You have to keep your head above water to help a drowning person get to safety. No good will come of letting ypurself get dragged under. An awful lot of well meaning people have strong emotional reactions and feel terrible for the victim. It is usually counterproductive for the victim to be exposed to such reactions.

Thank you for your future service.
posted by Michele in California at 2:18 PM on November 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

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