Executive Director Blog: There are no wrong questions

Nicole Chammartin is the Executive Director of Klinic and SERC. The work of these organizations focuses on; health, community development, mental health, sexuality, equity, and social justice. In this blog Nicole writes about the important work of these organizations, leadership, and the larger world of community and sexual health.

There are a few jobs in both of my workplaces that I find particularly daunting, largely due to the unpredictability of what may happen in any given minute.  Several of these jobs involve phones.  Last week, I decided to spend a few hours with people who are currently doing, or training to do, just that.

Firstly, its 3pm on a Wednesday and I am seated at the front desk at Klinic before a shift change and ahead of the opening of our STI and PAP Klinic at 4pm. There is a mini blizzard outside and I am chatting with three staff members (one in training), seated up front, about the impact that weather can have on drop-in services. Often by 3pm there is a line to the door of folks checking in for the Klinic; this is not the case tonight, but there is still brisk business happening. I take some time to discuss with Andrew, our new recruit, how he is finding things and what brings him to Klinic. Jamie, who works up front and is our in-house driver, walks me through her driving schedule in the downtime and we talk about the varied ways she offers support to our clients: going to Women’s Hospital and other health appointments, Employment and Income Assistance. I know without her support some of these folks would not make it where they need to go. Throughout our discussion, the phone rings steadily. It is the backdrop to every conversation and every call is completely different. Jamie preps me to take my first call: it is someone calling for counselling services and I am able to steer them to our drop-in counselling program and website.  Following this, we have a shift change and things become busier. I find myself simply answering the phone to try and help; I get everything from appointment changes (several), to needing health information from a nurse, counselling requests and clinic times. I am thankful I don’t get any crisis calls, as I know that’s pretty common. Talking to the team who move through the space, around the desk and at the desk, it is clear that being ready to answer anything is the standard.
If the front desk downstairs is about trying to have answers, upstairs on the crisis lines is often about trying to ask the right questions. What each of these roles share is not knowing what is coming when they pick up the phone. I have previously spent time and written about shadowing in the crisis program at Klinic. The crisis program is a name that encompasses 11 different lines that we provide services to, anchored by the Manitoba Suicide Prevention and Support Line.
As I have talked about before the volunteer workforce at Klinic is staggering. With well over 150 active volunteers, many who have waited years to start training with us, they are the critical backbone to our crisis program.  (Excerpt from December 2015 Blog Sunday Morning in the Crisis Room)
Klinic volunteers attend training sessions over a 3-month period to prepare them before they will even take a single call. After training, they will have a required commitment of a 4-hour shift per week for one year and participate in ongoing close supervision. Volunteers support every shift except the overnight and they are always with staff when working. Last week, I was able to attend the closing session of our latest training to see and hear more of what our volunteers experience and their thoughts as they prepare to start working on the lines.
This class has 22 recruits who have been working hard to prepare themselves for their new role. The room is boisterous when I arrive; each  volunteer is having a picture taken and completing a brief write up to go on the wall in the crisis room as part of our way of helping folks get to know each other. The session starts with a fast paced activity where our Volunteer Coordinator, Curt, reads out a scenario and each of the 22 students have to provide a reply before sitting down. I imagine this is a close proximity to being on the phones where you have to think quickly and keep engaged. The class has great responses and clearly have learned a lot over the last three months.
As we move to the more business part of preparing folks for their first shift, there are a lot of questions: where do I park on shift, what happens when my shift ends and I am on a hospital call with a caller who has experienced sexual assault? This work is complex, there is no doubt in my mind. I am very impressed with the calm and thorough answers Curt and the volunteer co-facilitator Randy are able to provide.As the session gets closer to closing, the volunteers participate in an activity where they provide advice to the next classI really enjoy their myriad of ideas they bring forward but from the very beginning it is evident there is a key learning: there are no wrong questions. Questions are a key tool for engaging, how we try to understand the story of the person who has reached out on that day and how we avoid assumptions.

This amazing group of people will go on to ask many questions to support so many in our community and likely even provide a few answers, or at least a nudge in the right direction, for some.

To learn more about the volunteer commitment at Klinic follow this link