They’re all kinds. Most of them are university students, but several have full-time jobs. One makes the best tea you’ve ever tasted, the kind of tea that makes everyone start loudly commenting about needing tea as soon as she arrives at the office. One demands Sun Chips all the time, but only the black ones, Yeshim Apu! One got mugged on his way to the office on his first day, and didn’t tell me about it until later, laughing shyly when the story finally came out.
But they have a lot in common, too. They all know they better wash their own cups in the kitchen. They all know that “I have an exam tomorrow” is not an acceptable reason not to come into their shift. They all have given hours and hours and hours of their own time (and we all know what that means in Dhaka city) to train, and practice, and then to put themselves into one of the most difficult places it is possible to be, on the receiving end of the phones of Kaan Pete Roi, Bangladesh’s first and only emotional support and suicide prevention helpline.
I think that people often look for “fun” things to volunteer their time to. Do good, and have fun at the same time. Teaching children, for instance. That’s fun. And there is of course nothing wrong with that. Giving your time to the well-being of someone other than yourself is always a beautiful thing to do and there’s no right or wrong way to do it. But it takes an incredible kind of human being to be a volunteer at Kaan Pete Roi.
Kaan Pete Roi is a suicide prevention helpline. A non-profit, volunteer-run, confidential, anonymous suicide prevention helpline. That is, it is a phone number that anyone can call for immediate, psychological support if they are feeling distressed, alone, suicidal, or if they just need someone to talk to. And speaking to individuals who are feeling that way, well, I wouldn’t use the word “fun.” When people get in touch to inquire about being a volunteer, and then throughout the entire interview, training and evaluation process that happens before they get on the phone lines, the KPR management members continuously warn them, this will not be easy. This will be something that you will carry with you, every day. (Actually, I keep saying this to them anxiously, to the point that other management members poke me in the ribs and say, “You’re going to scare them away!” And I say, “Well they have to know!” Luckily, no one’s been scared away by me yet.)
And, they get no recognition for what they do. In the interest of their safety, we don’t put identifying information about our volunteers anywhere public. Nowhere in this article will I tell you their names, or show you their pictures. KPR has had the good fortune of being covered on TV and on the radio, of even having large public publicity events, and no one has ever, ever seen the volunteers’ faces. Keeping the callers’ confidentiality means we will never share stories of what has happened on the phone; we will never tell anyone who we spoke to and how it went, no matter how terribly we want to shout out to the world that someone felt they couldn’t go on but we helped them find some hope, and look, this here is the volunteer that did it – never. We hold our conversations secretly and preciously close. We promise it’s confidential, and we mean it.
The current KPR volunteers are mostly university students, but several have full-time jobs. They like tea, and chips, and all manners of other food, of course. They ride buses and rickshaws in the pouring Dhaka rain and the glaring Dhaka sun to get to the office and the phone lines. I have never heard a complaint unless it’s about the lack of Sun Chips, and they form assembly lines of dish-washing. If you look into the phone room, you will see them speaking softly, heads bent over. I have said a lot already about the difficulty of the job; have I said that on the phone, you might speak to someone who is alone and distressed; you might become the reason they decide to try just another day instead of taking their life that night, and then that is what you will carry with you, every day, what you will hold close to you as you fall asleep at night?
They are the best of friends and wildly enthusiastic every time we train a new batch of volunteers, showing up to help us train with a stylish senior-volunteer swagger, welcoming their new friends (immediately friends!) with sassy hugs and handshakes. To celebrate the 6 month anniversary of KPR’s lines being open, several volunteers stepped up to be on shift all night – 12 hours straight.
An incredible kind of human. But I write this not only to boast about them, but to ask you to join them. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time with KPR, it’s that there is a piece for everyone, a piece they can own, that they and no one else can contribute. Not everyone joins us as a volunteer on the phones. But we need all the help we can get. We are, after all, a tiny, new, still growing little organisation swimming around in a big sea. There are many, many ways to help. What is incredible is not some sort of inherent, rare talent that people magically come with; what is incredible is the want to reach out a hand to someone who needs it. We have volunteers who do tech support, who coordinate events, who map out the distribution of flyers. We’re setting up systems to involve people who don’t yet meet the age limit (you have to be 18+ to be on the phones) but who want to be involved.
I ask you to take a look at our website and Facebook page, and to consider volunteering with us. I can promise you a few things, if you do join us. KPR will love you, passionately and noisily. You will be involved in one of the most difficult and most rewarding kinds of work you’ve ever encountered. I promise you, the privilege of being there for someone when they need you the most is something that can, in the course of a phone conversation, change your life.
And if you’re reading this and a little uncertain, wondering if you might want to call, or if you should give KPR’s number to someone else you know who might want to call? I can promise you a few things too. It’s confidential, it’s anonymous (we don’t even need to know your name if you don’t want to share it), and you can call to talk about absolutely anything. But I can also promise you that you will speak to someone who genuinely cares. That part, you can see for yourself, because if you call on a hartal, someone will have made it to the office to answer the phone. Or on the day after a hartal, when traffic is ridiculous and everyone has their own lives to catch up on. Or on Eid, or Puja. Someone is there for you, and they worked hard to be able to be there, for no other reason except that they care.
Now that is something, isn’t it?
Yeshim Iqbal is currently a doctoral student in the Psychology and Social Intervention Program at New York University.