When the phone in the counseling room at Headquarters Counseling Center rang, adrenaline rushed through Nishon Hawkins’ body. After 11 weeks of extensive training in phone counseling skills, including challenging lifelike simulations in which the callers were ready to take their own lives, here it was: her first live call. And she was nervous. Would she forget everything she’d learned? Would she really be able to help?
She found out in a matter of seconds, with one of the most challenging calls of her career as a phone counselor. “My first call was a suicide call,” Hawkins recalls. “I got in there, my very first call. It was scary at first, then the training kicks in.”
In a matter of seconds, another thing kicked in: her realization that she was meant for this.
“I’ve always been the person who people come to for advice and support,” she says. “There is nothing in this world that makes me happier than helping somebody else. I leave Headquarters on cloud nine. It’s the craziest thing. I’m excited and happy.”
Kristine Chapman, the director of volunteers for Headquarters, is on cloud nine to have Hawkins as a volunteer counselor, so much so that she nominated Nishon for the United Way Roger Hill Volunteer Center Wallace Galluzzi Outstanding Volunteer Award.
“Nishon is a person who lives and breathes compassion,” Chapman says. “She’s one of those people, when you talk to her, suddenly everything is OK.”
The volunteer phone counselors for this 24-hour crisis counseling center are all people who care enough about the emotional well-being of others that they go through 100 hours of training and commit to providing at least 300 hours of phone counseling, helping callers navigate crises, giving kids a safe person to talk to through the Phone A Friend service or just listening to someone who is lonely. Hawkins works one evening shift a week at Headquarters, on top of her full-time job.
Founded in 1969 by Kansas University students, Headquarters is one of the oldest continuously operating crisis centers in the country. In addition to providing 24-hour counseling in Douglas County, the center also receives all the calls from Kansas that go to the National Suicide Prevention Line. An organization with this kind of breadth relies heavily on talented volunteers like Nishon, Chapman says.
When it comes to the skill of compassionate problem solving, Hawkins says she learned from the best: her mother.
“We didn’t have a lot growing up, but she would give everything she had for someone else. She sometimes had to work two or three jobs, but still had time to help us with homework or help a neighbor with the shopping or watch a neighbor’s kids. That stuck with me. Even as a kid, I always helped people with the things they were going through.”
In the three years she’s volunteered for Headquarters, Hawkins has found that one of the best things she can do for distraught callers is to just listen.
“We don’t have a magic wand to fix their problems, but what we are there for is to listen and to care about what they are going through and support them,” she says. “You would be amazed at how appreciative people are just to have somebody to talk to, to listen to what they are going through and to genuinely care about what they are feeling. It’s definitely a powerful gift to give.”
Another gift she gives is warm humor, which she says helps callers see the hope in a bleak situation. “In my family, humor is such a huge thing,” she says. “They say laughter is the best medicine, and it really is.”
So when Hawkins is working with a caller, she helps them remember a happy moment in their lives or a funny situation. “I usually have them laughing by the end of the call. It shocks them that despite going through what they are going through, they can still laugh, that there is some hope,” she says.
That's exactly what happened during that very first call Hawkins took on her first night as a volunteer phone counselor. “At first, she was crying,” Hawkins says of the woman who was contemplating suicide. “And by the end of the call, she was calmer. She felt much better.”
In 2012 alone, Headquarters received 24,000 calls for help, a sizable call load for its 35 to 40 volunteer counselors and staff. Chapman says the organization is always in need of additional volunteer counselors. In August, Headquarters will hold an informational meeting for people who are interested in learning more about volunteering. The training program follows in September through November. For more information on volunteering for Headquarters, contact Chapman at email@example.com.