More volunteers are needed to man the phones at the Birmingham base of charity ChildLine. Victoria Farncombe finds out what’s involved
At first glance the third floor of CIBA Tower on Hagley Road looks like your average call centre. Workers looking studious in headsets, posters on the notice board advertising team nights out.
But the people phoning in are not complaining about their overdraft charges or asking for the number of a taxi firm. They don’t have to press 1 to change their details, 2 to hear their bank balance and 3 to speak to an advisor.
This is ChildLine. Last year the Birmingham team, mainly volunteers, answered more than 22,000 calls from children and young people with no one else to turn to.
Night times are busiest. It’s when everyone’s asleep that children find the courage to pick up the phone.
Previously all nighttime calls were answered by an office in London but since November, the service has been shared between London, Birmingham and Glasgow.
Birmingham covers Thursday and Friday nights and one Saturday in every three. Although the NSPCC office is supported by a bank of over 170 volunteers, more kind-hearted night owls are needed to man the phones in those unsociable evening hours from midnight to six.
Their help is crucial. Due to current staff shortages, children phoning in at night have only a 40 per cent chance of getting through to a counsellor.
Services manager Claire Brown said: “We don’t want to miss a single child or young person. By volunteering you could save a life.”
It’s Thursday night and I’ve come to find out more about the people who give their time for free and the work they do. Due to confidentiality rules I’m not allowed to listen into any phone calls or even sit in the call centre, but in the canteen volunteers stop for a coffee and tell me their story.
Alison Wells, aged 37, from Sutton Coldfield, is a typical volunteer. For a start, she’s female. Seventy-five per cent of the volunteers are, though ChildLine would like more men to sign up as there are always callers who want to hear a male voice. Secondly, the retail supervisor has been considering a career in counselling – something I hear again and again during the night.
Thirdly, she’s tough. Not grew-up-in-the-Chicago-Projects tough and not mean or hard or cold. Tough in that she has the strength to listen to children tell harrowing tales of bullying and abuse without crumpling in a heap.
How does she do it?
“You’ve got to have it in you to want to help somebody,” she shrugged as if what she does is nothing remarkable. “If you know a child has been moved to talk to you when they have got no one else, that’s an amazing feeling. That’s what’s rewarding about it.”
Later Claire puts it another way.
“Although it’s hard to listen to, it’s even harder for young people to talk about,” she said. “You need to think of that and put aside your own feelings.
“Even if you can’t solve their problems, I think it’s important that someone was there to listen to them.
“We’re really pleased that people can and do volunteer. Besides, the training helps people to create a way of dealing with these issues and looking after themselves.”
A clever way ChildLine helps its volunteers leave behind their problems is through the Debrief Room.
Spoken of in hushed tones, the Debrief Room is the magical place between the call centre and the real world. To the uninitiated it looks an unremarkable square room with chairs.
But Alison explains it is like an “airlock” allowing volunteers to vent pressure before returning to their everyday lives.
It’s here that the workers talk about any particularly distressing calls they have heard and release pent-up emotions. It’s the Debrief Room which keeps them sane.
Coreene Lindsay has just completed her first ever shift.
“I was so nervous beforehand,” said the 22-year-old sales assistant from Wolverhampton. “I didn’t think I could do it but it was amazing. The supervisors were so supportive. I really feel like I’ve helped people. I’m buzzing.”
Coreene spoke to a teenager with an eating disorder, a girl who was abused by her uncle and another teenager with boy trouble.
Worst of all was a silent call.
“I didn’t think anyone was there. I didn’t even think there was anyone listening until right at the end she whispered, ‘I’ll phone back’,” said Coreene. “That’s when I realised she had been listening all along.”
Some nights a volunteer can get silent call after silent call and those are the hardest shifts.
“You just have to keep saying, ‘Childline is here to listen,’ and hope that they pluck up the courage to talk,” said Coreene. “Even the prank calls with children fooling around we take seriously. You never know who is listening who might need to talk to us. And sometimes a prank call is just a way of testing the water.”
Last month Esther Rantzen visited the Hagley Road centre she founded seven years ago and paid tribute to the volunteers.
“I continually try to analyse why I love coming to a ChildLine base, for me it’s more emotional than meeting a member of my own family,” said the 68-year-old TV presenter. “I always say to them what they are doing for children is making my dreams come true.”
n Anyone interested in finding out more about becoming a volunteer can call 0870 336 2915.