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At the end of the line: What it's like volunteering for a sexual assault crisis line

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Posted at 6:30 PM, Oct 26, 2019

RISE is a local non-profit based in San Luis Obispo offering resources to survivors of sexual assault and intimate partner violence. The RISE crisis line has been in service for longer than some of its volunteers have been alive.

"Our crisis line has been running 24 hours a day, seven days a week uninterrupted since 1975," said Jane Pomeroy, RISE's Interim Executive Director.

That means 24 hours a day, seven days a week, someone is on the end of the RISE crisis line to take a call. That someone could be in a tough situation, one that might be related to intimate partner violence or sexual assault.

What makes this crisis line unique is the near 20 active volunteers who answer these calls.

"None of the volunteers who take shifts on the line, including staff, are required to do so. It's all because they care about the work, they care about serving survivors and their loved ones," Pomeroy said.

Kiani Alba is a Central Coast native who is finishing up her senior at California State University, Monterey. She's one of those volunteers.

"I think that it's mainly about wanting to have people feel heard," Alba said.

A typical day as a crisis line volunteer means being by your phone.

"I have a special ring tone, it comes in all loud," Alba said. "As soon as I answer it, I think that I settle down."

Answering this call could offer the calm to someone's crisis. A crisis that could include sexual assault or domestic violence.

"You kind of go into this mode of, 'I'm here to listen,'" Alba said.

Similar to Alba, Sarah Henning has been a crisis line volunteer for about a year and a half.

"Believing is really important," Henning said. "Giving that victim some credit, you know. They're speaking out to you. That's huge. They're being so brave to be willing to speak out."

Henning is taking these calls every weekend.

"I want to make sure they're safe right now because if they're not, we want to find a way to get them to safety, whether that's staying on the line with them while they contact 911 or something of the sort," Henning said.

She says when people call the hotline, she feels honored to be the one who gets the opportunity to help them.

Pomeroy says one in four women and one in 33 men fall victim to sexual assault. Those who choose to call the crisis line could receive a number of services from RISE, free of charge. That could mean assistance with getting a restraining order or being directed to local agencies like CHC or San Luis Obispo County Behavioral Health.

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When it comes to answering that call, there are pointers but no script. However, to become a crisis line volunteer, one must go through about 80 hours of training, which is lead by Jennifer MacMartin.

"We learn how to speak to somebody in crisis, how to de-escalate, and the tools we can use to offer resources moving forward," MacMartin said. "We talk about oppression and privilege and how it creates a culture of violence."

The training lasts for about two-and-a-half months.

"We spend a lot of time talking about class, race, and gender," MacMartin said. "All of the penal codes, definitions, intricacies of all of those issues."

Most recently, especially within the last two years, MacMartin says there was an uptick in calls to the crisis line as a result of the Me Too movement.

"It changed our hotline completely."

The crisis line is completely confidential, but these calls can come from someone who was just recently assaulted and wants to know what options they have moving forward or someone who was assaulted more than 60 years ago and is speaking out about it for the first time.

Callers can also call to schedule a SART exam, which is a medical exam performed by a professional on someone who has been sexually assaulted.

"The restricted SART gives you the option to collect all the evidence and hold onto that for a few years until you're ready to actually report," MacMartin said.

RISE also offers short-term housing through its two shelters in Paso Robles and Atascadero. Pomeroy says this is the smallest program RISE offers and it's full 95% of the time.

"Almost always it's a matter of limited resources," Pomeroy said.

However, resources have expanded for the non-profit.

"The state, last year, approved an additional $20 million for DV shelters and rape crisis centers and we've gotten to expand programs, we've doubled our prevention team," Pomeroy said. We're now in detention facilities supporting victims who are incarcerated and it's just a really exciting time to be doing this work."

The goal is to help others in crisis, which can oftentimes be heavy work for the volunteers and staff at RISE.

"We try to be very mindful about our staff's self-care and making sure that people set very secure boundaries and take care of themselves," said Susan Lamont, Client Services Director at RISE.

Having an outlet to decompress is crucial in this line of work.

"We have to set really strict boundaries around our emotional health and well-being that we're not too connected to these clients because we would burn out real quick," MacMartin said. "So we have to hang up the phone and say I did my best and that's all that I can do."

That's something Alba says she aims for.

"Sometimes it's 1:00 in the morning, you get off the phone and I lay in bed and I wonder, okay, now what are they doing? They made the phone call, I feel like I did help them but was it enough? You'll never really know. It was enough in that moment."

These volunteers can't tell the callers what to do, but they can guide them to make the right decision for themselves.

"If I can guide them, I feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to do and accomplishing a goal," Henning said.

If you or someone you know is a victim of sexual assault or intimate partner violence, call 855-866-7473 or click here.