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Helpline needs a hand from Pasco's residents

Almost everyone has been through this: You wake from a sound sleep in the middle of the night overcome with anxiety. Maybe it's a nagging problem; maybe it's just a general feeling of distress.

As you stare toward the ceiling, the feeling becomes as smothering as a feather pillow placed over your face.

Until last week, you could call one of three Helpline telephone numbers in Pasco County and share your panic with a trained professional or volunteer. The call was free.

But Feb. 3, the night Helpline voice in Pasco went on hold. The state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services cut $188,000 from the Family Resources's Helpline allocation _ about 50 percent of the entire $377,000 budget _ and painful choices had to be made.

After a lot of soul-searching, the Helpline people decided the night line in Pasco would have to go. After all, only about 10 percent of Helpline's revenue is provided by Pasco County government and United Way. The rest comes from Pinellas County, where Helpline is based.

Now, instead of 24-hour service, the Pasco line is available only from 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. seven days a week. In between, if you feel completely desperate, you have to call 911.

Problem is, 911 people really don't have time to console or counsel; their duty is to identify emergencies and dispatch appropriate help.

The cutback couldn't have come at a worse time, say Helpline employees.

"This economy puts more stress in marriage," says Amy Stiff, director of community services for Family Resources in St. Petersburg, where Helpline is stationed. People need medical help; families are being evicted from their homes; lots of people can't pay their bills.

Most calls come in the daytime, and people mostly want information and referral to other agencies, Stiff says.

But it's the night callers who usually are most in need _ abuse victims, potential suicides, possible abusers.

Hazel Hudson, who directs community relations for Family Resources, tells of a Pasco woman whose life may have been saved because of Helpline.

The woman had been the victim of repeated beatings. Once, when neighbors called police after they heard her screams for help, she was found bound and gagged.

One night, she sneaked away from home and called Helpline. It took two hours and the cooperation of Pasco sheriff's deputies to get her to a safe shelter.

"What would have happened if the woman had been told to call back?" Hudson wonders. "What will other people from Pasco who are in similar circumstances do?"

Good question.

Last year, 14,250 Pasco people called Helpline, about 3,500 of them in the wee hours of the night. That's 19 percent of the calls Helpline gets from its Pasco-Pinellas coverage area.

In Pinellas, a good portion of Helpline money comes from the Juvenile Welfare Board's tax, a logical source because many of the Helpline callers are troubled kids.

Pasco doesn't have many sources for money, Stiff says.

Her observation underscores still another reason people here should vote in favor of the Children's Services Tax on March 10. If ever a county had more than its share of troubled kids, it's Pasco.

If Helpline had a telephone center in Pasco, volunteers could take up some slack. There isn't one, though. The telephones and professional staff are in south Pinellas County, so it's well nigh impossible for local volunteers to commute.

Each year about 50 volunteers from Pinellas go through the 60 hours of training needed to handle calls so they can help Pasco residents. The volunteers work four hours a week, but even spending that small amount of time listening to problems and heartbreaks causes job burnout within six or so months, Stiff says. That means recruiting is constant.

What Pasco residents can do is supply money to Helpline to provide training for volunteers and counselors, and pay salaries for their supervisors. Each of Pasco's three telephone lines costs $2,520 a year. Other costs are office rent, utility bills and endless pots of coffee for the dedicated volunteers to drink as they wait for the next phone to ring.

The address is P.O. Box 13087, St. Petersburg 33733.

Helpline needs help.