8 min

Calling the shotsling the shots

Having survived financial crisis & in-fighting, a happier, reinvigorated youth line continues to lend an ear

SMOOTH OPERATORS. Youth line staff, board and volunteers include: (at left, clockwise from top) Michèle Clarke, Marnie Fisher, Edwin Lim, (at right, clockwise from top) Stephanie Docherty, Lars Mathiesen and Philip Wong. Credit: Tony Fong

Picture it. Toronto. 1983. A 16-year-old suffering her first heartbreak sits cross-legged on her bed, staring at a rotary phone, too chicken-shit to make The Call.

She has waited patiently for this moment, a rare opportunity when her family is out of the house, between seven and nine on one of two designated week-nights when the line is open. At last, she has privacy — wimping out would be inexcusable. When she finally dials, the other end is busy. She keeps trying and gets through — to a pre-recorded message.

That was my introduction to a lesbian and gay support service. I kept calling back to hear the same overly-camp queen read out a list of events — actual events — for gay people. A lot of us have similar stories, which is partly why the five-year-old Toronto-based, but province-wide, Lesbian, Gay, Bi Youth Line has survived against high odds.

Despite funding cuts, rapid staff turnover, in-fighting and a temporary shutdown of services a year ago, the community is still behind the peer support hot line. The organization is a third of the way to this year’s $75,000 fundraising goal, has a revised structure, a smaller, more efficient board, a 60-strong pool of dedicated volunteers and plans for permanent staffing. But it isn’t out of the woods yet.

The line was beset by problems early on. No sooner had Ryan Lapidus arrived as executive director in October 1995, than the provincial government cut all funds to the group, then just shy of its 18-month anniversary. “It was like trial by fire when I started,” Lapidus says.

The financial crisis had board members scrambling to save the fledgling project. While they were successful in raising money, enabling the line to continue, resentments started to brew.

Bonte Minnema, who started his stint as a board member just before the line was shut down in the midst of internal strife, says the relationship between board and staff “was somewhat strained” then. “Not because the people involved didn’t have the best of intentions and not because work wasn’t getting done, but because with difficult things happening like the funding cut, people were required to take drastic action.”

Conflict within the unwieldy board (with seats for 10 youth and nine adults), and its strained relations with staff, continued until the inevitable blowout in March 1998, when five board members suddenly resigned.(At the time, the make up of the board was seven youth and nine adults.)

Juana Berinstein was a volunteer for a year-and-a-half before she was hired as the operations coordinator in the spring of 1997. She had quit her job by that fall. Berinstein says it was the failure of the board to recognize the need for more staff that created the tension.

With only two full-time staff, “the work that needed to be done was really much bigger,” Berinstein says. “I think that led to a lot of staff burnout and almost being set up for failure — you’re given so much on your plate you know you’re not going to be able to get it done.”

Lapidus agrees. “There was always much more work to be done than could be done by two full-time staff,” he says. But he believes the troubles between board and staff weren’t necessarily driven by such concrete forces. “To this day I still think it was just some personality conflicts more than anything else.”

Berinstein attributes the rocky relationship to a communication glitch. “I think this often happens for not-for-profit boards,” she explains. “The staff are there day in and day out and they have a knowledge of how things work that sometimes people on committees or on boards are more removed from because they spend a lot less time at the agency.”

But founding board member Bob Gallagher, who left during the board exodus in March 1998, doesn’t think that unrealistic expectations were placed on staff. “Did we overwork them? I’m sure we did to some degree,” Gallagher says. “We saw a number of people doing exactly what had to be done and I think what we ended up with was a couple of people who just didn’t have the skill sets to do it.”

Lapidus’s exit in August 1997 marked the start of a succession of staffing changes that further de-stabilized the organization. Berinstein took her leave close on his heels. Chris Cecile was hired on as the new executive director, but resigned in November after only three months on the job. An operations coordinator hired at the same time was let go a few months later.

The staff revolving door crisis finally spun out of control with the dramatic resignation of executive director Lynn Iding in February in 1998. She left after only three weeks at the helm. Gallagher says she was in disagreement with a board hiring decision.

Iding’s parting shot was a letter to her former employers, in which she accused them of creating a poor management structure, fostering low morale and providing a lousy service. Her resignation spurred an emergency board meeting and a decision was made to close down the lines until Pride Day.

“I think it was the responsible thing for the line to do,” Berinstein says, “to shut down and to be able to reorganize and really focus on having a healthy organization. I think it would have been a lot worse to pretend they were carrying on a service.”

Gallagher agrees. “Had we not shut down when we did, had we waited six months, I don’t think the organization would be around today.”

The youth line was also plagued by conflict within the board. Lapidus says the divide between youth and adults “was subtle.” He recalls attending some board meetings where “the youth would be on one side of the table and the adults would be on the other side.”

But Lapidus doesn’t think the division was deliberate. “I did hear that some of the youth sometimes felt like they couldn’t say everything that was on their mind,” he says. He attributes inter-board wrangling to an unequal distribution of work among its members. “Some people took on a lot more work, were more heavily burdened and were more stressed. I think that created some tension in the board.”

Berinstein thinks the divide split more along old guard and new guard lines than between adults and youth. “But again, a lot of the old guard are no longer youth, so it’s both — it sort of went hand in hand,” she says.

And for his part, Gallagher is adament that there was no youth/adult division on the board. “Absolutely not,” he says. “I think it was more of a board/volunteer split.”

Long-time volunteer Maloy (volunteers don’t give out their last names to protect themselves from harassment) joined the line in March 1995 and sat on the board in 1996 and 1997. “There were three or four people who were real movers and shakers who essentially defined the identity of the board,” she says. “People who wanted to be more involved, or who wanted to take on more responsibility were not able to.”

Maloy feels this imbalance has been addressed, but at the time, the bickering was enough to keep her from running for the board again. She went back to being a volunteer. “I thought I’ll stay on and do what I can, but I really don’t want to get involved in the politics.”

In March 1998, the youth line looked like it could go under — the tension, the shutdown and the board and staff resignations had taken their toll. At that point, David Mordecai, a former employee of the AIDS Committee Of Toronto, was hired as interim executive director, a position he still holds. Mordecai’s job was to start bailing — fast.

Morale was low. The only saving grace was literally money in the bank. Some $60,000 in the line’s bank account made hiring outside consultants possible. Mordecai spent the first few months doing damage assessment and speaking with past and present volunteers and board members.

The consultants, Shea And Company, came on board later, during the summer, to “fine tune our review and organizational structure,” Mordecai says. The two main objectives were to get the lines up and running, and to overhaul the organization’s structure. “We were quite successful on both fronts,” Mordecai says.

Two youth were hired to coordinate the phone lines. The full-time position was given to Stephanie Docherty and the former volunteer had only three weeks to do the job.

Docherty credits volunteers with the success of the re-opening. “When it came to contacting volunteers and finding people to actually answer the phone lines, we just had a list of people who wanted to do it. Volunteers were essentially coming to us saying, ‘I want to be back on the lines.'”

Hiring Docherty from the volunteer ranks was also politically astute. “There were some who felt that volunteers just weren’t being consulted enough,” Docherty says. “So it was a really wise decision and a valuable thing to do, to bring in someone who was a volunteer on staff.”

Bridging the communication gap was a priority. “I don’t think the shifts were very profound. I don’t think we totally reorganized,” Mordecai says of the consultants’ recommendations and resulting changes. “I think it was just to clarify — okay, here’s what the role of the executive director is, and this is what this job is.”

Clear job descriptions for the board were among the recommendations. Minnema thinks that simple change made all the difference in improving the board’s effectiveness. “It’s easier now because it’s more precise. You know who a person goes to talk to. It’s easier to be heard. It feels much more like a family,” he says.

Reducing the number of board members to 11, with seats for six youth and five adults, was another fix. “Because it’s a smaller group,” Minnema explains, “it’s much easier to stay in contact with people and to talk to people about things and to work together far more effectively.”

Other recommendations included reducing phone service to Sunday to Friday from 4pm until 9:30pm. Mordecai thinks shorter hours are more realistic. He says volunteers have taken 2,000 calls since re-opening and have significantly lowered the number of missed shifts to less than 10 percent. Prior to the shutdown, it wasn’t uncommon for half the shifts to go unmanned.

In an effort to reduce volunteer burnout, crisis calls are now referred out to the Distress Centre Of Ontario, the Kids Help Phone Line, the Assaulted Women’s Help Line and 911. “That was creating a lot of tension and problems for volunteers,” Mordecai says. “There was anxiety and stress because of the nature of some of the calls we were taking, when really those were calls we should have been referring because we didn’t have the training to deal with them in the first place.”

Maloy agrees. “It does limit the number of calls we can take,” she says. “A lot of people here are really young. They’re dealing with their own problems, their own coming out, and all these other things, so to deal with a death or something as serious as that is asking a little bit much of people.”

Structural changes have made for smoother operations, while political differences also seem to have fallen aside. The youth/adult tension isn’t such a problem, as far as Docherty is concerned. “I think the focus has shifted, and I think this place has always run from a youth focus, youth-run model.”

Docherty points out that all front-line volunteers are youth (defined as under 26), and only one staff member is older. Juana Berinstein agrees. “I’m really impressed with the board now,” she says, “I feel that it is youth-driven. I guess the challenge will come again in a few years when those people aren’t youth anymore.”

Future plans are modest. “Answering the phone is what we do best,” says board member Minnema. “Once we’ve mastered that, and we know it’s a stable, long-term thing, at that point, we can look at other things,” such as advocacy, he says.

The line’s mandate is still provincial. It’s a huge catchment area, but not one that Docherty thinks is beyond them. “I don’t think it’s too big. I think we definitely have the capacity in terms of volunteers. I think the hardest part in serving all of Ontario is just in making sure all of Ontario know we exist.”

Mordecai says the most important immediate task facing the line is to get the word out. “That’s a real challenge because with a province-wide mandate and a tiny little budget [about $110,000 annually], we could spend our entire budget just on advertising and marketing.”

There’s lots of work ahead, but Minnema is optimistic. “We are heading in the right direction. We’ve implemented at least half the recommendations, and are in the process of implementing the rest. The community is supporting us, volunteers are supporting us, and staff and board morale is quite high.”

And, most importantly, some 16-year-old in Parry Sound won’t have to listen to a message when she gets up the guts to make that call when her parents aren’t around.