A Kind Voice in Time of Need | Torrance Memorial

Published on April 01, 2022

A Kind Voice in Time of Need

Community Helpline has been supporting people in crisis for 50 years.

Community Helpline staff

Written by Melissa Bean Sterzick | Photographed by Vincent Rios

Everyone needs a listening ear sometimes. When life is difficult, a few kind words make an enormous difference. If a friend or loved one or therapist is not available, a telephone helpline is a great resource for anyone experiencing a crisis, a mental health issue, loneliness or grief.

Community Helpline, based in the South Bay, celebrated its 50th year in 2021. Even though it’s called a “community” helpline, it takes calls from all over the country. The helpline has 70 volunteers who answer more than 1,000 calls a month. Community Helpline’s phones are staffed from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Pacific time zone) every day.

Community Helpline call center

Savannah Leslie is Community Helpline’s organizational supervisor. She was inspired by her years of volunteering at the call center when she was in high school to take on this position.

“We show callers we are here for them and they are not alone,” Leslie says. “They can hear in our voice and in our words that we actually care. And when you’re going through a crisis, we don’t give you a time limit. If you’re going through something, we’re not going to shut you down.”

Community Helpline’s location is kept private for security reasons. Volunteers take three-hour shifts multiple times a month on a rotating basis. After 25 hours of training in mental health, substance and domestic abuse, interpersonal conflict, suicide and more, and 12 hours of mentored training on the phone lines, they begin to take calls on their own. 

Savannah Leslie

They are trained to listen without giving advice, to validate the caller’s feelings and show empathy. They are also taught to recognize various mental health conditions. They offer online resources and referrals for therapy and support programs. Calls are confidential and give the option of anonymity, except when volunteers perceive a life-threatening situation. Then they ask the caller for contact information and notify authorities. 

Moe Gelbart, PhD, is the founder and executive director of the Thelma McMillen Recovery Center and director of behavioral health at Torrance Memorial. He’s also a former Community Helpline volunteer. He says the center’s strengths are providing distressed callers with immediate relief and referrals for professional help. 

Making a phone call can be a good reset and is much better than giving up or acting out impulsively. Often, callers need a momentary shoulder to lean on and are relieved they can do so anonymously.

“If you’re feeling out of control and have no one to turn to, you can call the number and someone is going to answer and provide you with enough support to get through to the next day,” Gelbart says. “It’s enough for what you need in that moment—and to help you get to the right place.”

Leslie says speaking with callers over the past five years has taught her to be kinder to herself, to find ways to relate to people she doesn’t agree with or understand and to see every person as an equal. “We are here to support you, accept you, affirm you and what you are going through,” she says. “And if you need resources, we can get you those as well. There’s no judgement. Our focus is to help you regardless of what you’re going through.”

Fundraising is an ongoing priority so the organization can keep staff and hire a full-time executive director to help carry out plans for growth. The helpline is well staffed right now, but volunteers are always wanted.

“If this is something you’re serious about, it’s not a typical volunteer job,” Leslie says. “You are here to talk to real human beings and make sure they know they are cared for. That takes remembering your training. That takes power. That takes heart.” 

To contact Community Helpline, call 310-793-1415. The hotline is 877-541-2525.