KU filmmaker launches fundraiser for crisis center documentary

Becoming a volunteer at Headquarters Counseling Center isn’t a simple process. Then again, neither is speaking on the phone with a person thinking of killing himself.

The job takes empathy, patience, maturity and the ability to refrain from casting judgment, said Andy Brown, the organization’s executive director.

Each class of aspiring volunteers submits to an intensive, 11-week training and screening process, Brown said. The training teaches volunteers how to interact with fragile callers, but also makes sure they’re right for the job.

Andy Brown, executive director of Headquarters Counseling Center

“We do a lot of screening because we’re dealing with situations that are often life or death and we need to make sure our people are capable of handling those situations,” Brown said.

Filmmaker Bob Hurst aimed to capture that training process in his upcoming documentary, “The Listeners.”

Hurst, who teaches in Kansas University’s department of film and media studies, said the documentary focuses on an upcoming group of volunteers at Headquarters.

The documentary’s title is a nod to those who sit at one end of a telephone, helping anonymous people through emotional and distressing situations, Hurst said.

“These are young kids doing this,” Hurst said. “They’re volunteering and training to talk to someone who might be standing on a train track waiting for the next train to come.”

Hurst said a friend suggested he make a documentary focusing on a crisis center in early 2013. He started filming later that year.

With 150 hours of footage awaiting the editorial process, Hurst said the project needs financing.

Hoping to finish the film by the end of September, in time to meet submission deadlines for several major film festivals, Hurst said he began a Kickstarter campaign.

The campaign, which ends June 12, aims to raise $19,100 to help hurry the editorial process and pay for graphic production and music.

“We’d like to have a rough cut by June/July, then a final cut by August/September. We’ve already got a composer working on the score,” Hurst said. “But Kickstarter is really high risk. It’s an all-or-nothing thing. You either make the goal and get the money, or you don’t and you get nothing.”

While Hurst said his film does center on Headquarters, he hopes the bigger picture brings national crisis centers further into the spotlight.

“It’s also about crisis hotlines in the U.S. and how effective they can be,” he said. “They’re incredibly effective and (Headquarters) is something for Lawrence to be proud of because they have a crisis center that’s been around for 45 years, doing really great work. It’s a very valuable resource.”

Drew Harger appears in Hurst’s documentary. He said he has volunteered at Headquarters since November 2013.

Shedding light on crisis centers is great for the organizations, but better for those in need, Harger said.

Each year, Headquarters receives as many as 25,000 calls seeking help, Brown said. Not every person is suicidal. Infidelity, drug use, depression and other types of self-harm are also common topics.

Each call is anonymous and can last anywhere from 10 minutes to well over an hour, Brown said. And the more people are aware of their services, the more people the organization can help.

This logic applies not only to Headquarters, Harger said, but to crisis centers across the country.

Each volunteer has their own specific motivation for offering their time to a crisis center, Harger said. Some are survivors of suicide, other simply yearn to help the less fortunate.

Regardless of their reasons, Harger said the benefits far outweigh the cost of admission. Just as he’s sure he’s made an impact on the lives of his callers, volunteering has left a lasting impression on him.

“There are several specific calls I’ll remember even long after I’m gone,” he said. “Where the way I heard the caller’s voice change from the beginning of the call to the end of the call really let me know what I was doing was working.”