Salvation Army hotline reassures people that they aren’t alone
By: Brad Rowland
The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting millions around the world and, in addition to the physical and financial needs created by the virus and its wide-ranging impression, emotional and spiritual needs are emerging for many. With that in mind, The Salvation Army’s USA Southern Territory launched a dedicated hotline to meet that growing need, with the initiative growing quickly on a national scale.
“One of the core services of the Emergency Disaster Services program is emotional and spiritual care,” said Bobbi Geery, disaster services training coordinator. “That is something we find is vitally important to anyone that is going through a disaster. This is obviously a different thing in the sense of it being a pandemic, so we had to decide how we could still offer this service from a distance. We decided to provide a hotline and, with the help of (chief information officer) Clarence White, we were able to get everything squared away within just a few days.”
The telephone hotline, which can be reached at 844-458-HOPE (4673), went online in late March. Within two weeks, other territories began to inquire about the effort, and the hotline now operates nationwide, with additional staffing from the Central Territory, Eastern Territory and National Headquarters.
The hotline is averaging more than 40 received calls per day, and it is in operation from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m ET seven days per week. Using a Unitel voice system, operators are able to log on remotely in shifts, with an individual’s call forward to an operator in anonymous fashion. All calls are confidential, with no phone numbers displayed, and, unless the call expands to direct assistance that requires additional information, only first names are used.
More than 100 operators are already trained nationally, with the majority as officers. In addition, there are some volunteers, previously trained for EDS work, manning the lines, and spiritually mature Salvation Army employees are also participating.
“The majority of us are not professionally trained counselors or therapists,” said Major Jerry Friday, territorial secretary for mission and cultural ministry. “We’re just here to provide a listening ear.”
“Many of the folks that are coming on as operators have had some of our training in the past,” Geery said. “But what we did decide is that we needed to do a short training for people that are going to be staffing our hotline. This tells us how to handle difficult callers and how things change over the phone. For example, we’ve adapted our training slightly to talk about what it means to have a ministry of presence while on a phone call, rather than in person.”
Operators are equipped with resources to refer callers to local Salvation Army units for social service assistance when necessary, including more than a few success stories of coordination at this young stage in the program. Due to the uncertain nature of the pandemic itself, the initiative remains ongoing, with no plans to slow down.
“I don’t think that we’ve even thought about when to end this,” Geery said. “Typically, in disaster work, there is some sort of an exit plan when you start, but this is a very different response effort.”
Ultimately, needs go well beyond the physical and financial at this stage and, even if The Salvation Army’s work must be flexible in times of social distancing, meeting human need in his name without discrimination remains the battle cry.
“I want people to know that The Salvation Army is, the best that we can, doing the most good right now,” Major Friday said. “We can’t always be boots on the ground in the way that we might like, going door-to-door and hugging these people, but this is something we can do, and we’re doing it.”
Many are grateful to simply have someone to speak to and receive an encouraging message of hope and salvation, with those on the other line also facing many of the same challenges and a desire to come together during this trying time.
“Unlike many disaster situations, we’re all in this together,” said Geery. “We’re experiencing the same feelings or frustrations as some of our callers. So, I think that gives us empathy to understand what’s happening. We’re all being impacted by social distancing, even if some are more than others. I think that is one of the values, is the fact that we’re all doing this together.”
“Through that kind word or that word of encouragement, we’re seeing people recognize that they aren’t alone. I think that’s a big thing. We’re not discriminating against anyone and we’re loving and helping whoever is on the other end of the phone the best we possibly can.”