A couple of weeks ago now I attended my first volunteer conference. The conference was referred to as Palooza and it felt as much like a festival as it did a conference. 2016 seems to be a year of volunteer firsts since the Invictus Games was my first volunteer vacation.
When I found out that Crisis Text Line was having a conference for their counselors I knew that I’d move mountains to be there and between starting a new job, financial challenges, and Formula 1, there were a few mountains. Mountains were moved, planes boarded, and a few hundred superheroes without capes converged on Austin, TX to spend a few days in amazement. *Signs Amazing*
Although it’s great that this is a digital experience and I can log in on my couch and feel connected to texters and counselors, it’s nice to hug these people. Putting your arms around people who know what it’s like, who’ve taught you, and been there with you, is the best kind of comfort.
I think my biggest takeaway was seeing how different this organization really is. I’ve been volunteering all my life (seriously, I remember as a kid I’d be stuffing donor drive envelopes for the Ballet while watching the Disney Channel). I have never seen anything like this. Many organizations appreciate their volunteers, many rely on their volunteers, but I have never seen any organization that puts its volunteers first. Appreciated is an understatement and they let us know and feel that at this conference. You might be thinking – of course most organizations don’t do that, the people or the cause they serve should come first. But what Crisis Text Line has figured out (through data and not being afraid to breakdown assumptions) is that putting the volunteers first makes it possible to serve the texters. Supporting volunteers is the key to what drives empathy to people in crisis. Volunteers give their time for so many reasons and I think a lot of us do it with or without a thank you but Crisis Text Line is starting a revolution with this idea. I’m a better volunteer because I’m supported, validated, and celebrated. My first shift back from the conference I felt like I could take over the world, I took more conversations and was more engaged than ever. I was a better counselor.
When I signed up, it was a 4 hour weekly commitment for a year. It sounded like a lot and some weeks the 4 hours feels like a lot sometimes but I’ve passed my 1 year commitment by a few months and have basically left it behind. I will be a Crisis Text Line counselor as long as they’ll have me. I’ve found something amazing. I’ve learned to be open to the fact that even if my assumptions are positive, I can be wrong. I’ve been inspired to be open and listen to the things that challenge my assumptions.
Another thing that stuck out to me during the conference was how diverse of a group we are. Crisis Text Line isn’t just a genius idea because people in crisis can use their phones to get help in a new and easy way, it’s a genius idea because people can volunteer in a way they wouldn’t normally be able to. Caring people are no longer limited by location, time, or disabilities. So if you aren’t able to get somewhere to volunteer, your only free time is in the middle of the night, or you have a physical disability that might keep you from doing typical volunteer work; at Crisis Text Line these aren’t limits. For example, there is a growing hard of hearing or deaf contingent. There are older volunteers who might not get the same reaction or connection face to face with younger people in crisis. There are volunteers in remote locations – all 50 states. The only requirements really are empathy and the internet.
A million people die by suicide every year worldwide. A million people. It sounds overwhelming but also motivating. I can make a dent. My kindness, my words, can help. I imagine one of those big neon signs that show the donations for a charity telethon, but going in the opposite direction. I’m screaming out in the world that you matter and the number goes down. I tell people that I go to therapy and the number goes down. I work a shift on Crisis Text Line and the number goes down.
The Crisis Text Line conference was amazing and I’m still feeling the effects. I learned so much and it brought me so much happiness. I feel very connected to this community.
If you’re interested in volunteering you can find more information here. Feel free to ask me any questions you have in the comments.