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How Trevor Project counsellors are telecommuting to protect youth in crisis

March 20, 2020By
group holding Trevor project sign

In January of this year, the United States recorded its first known case of novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, in Washington State. In the months of rapid change that followed, offices and businesses began shutting their doors and people around the world began practicing social distancing and quarantining themselves at home. But, for The Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ youth, shutting down their call centers simply wasn’t an option. The call centers support the TrevorLifeline, and many youths in crisis rely on the hotline’s continued operation and support every day.

Founded in 1998 by the makers of Academy Award winning short film, Trevor, The Trevor Project is a crucial resource for youth in crisis. The Trevor Project’s 2019 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that 39% of LGBTQ youth had seriously considered attempting suicide in the past twelve months, with more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth having seriously considered attempting suicide. The Trevor Project seeks to prevent suicide among the vulnerable LGBTQ youth population through their confidential crisis hotline, the TrevorLifeline.

More than 100,000 youth rely on this hotline every year for life-saving counseling support.

In late February, The Trevor Project’s Director of Technology, John Callery, recognized the COVID-19 pandemic might result in the closure of their call centers.

“There were a lot of conflicting messages from federal and local governments, with some saying COVID-19 wasn’t going to impact North America and others suggesting a more cautious approach,” says John. “A conversation with my dad, a retired surgeon and healthcare executive, about emergency preparedness prompted a conversation with the Director of our Lifeline, Danielle Ehsanipour. It’s the least elastic part of our organization. We knew that after more than two decades of operation it would require an immense amount of effort to transform our brick and mortar call centers into a remote hotline. We raised a sense of urgency and rallied leadership to build the momentum needed to move very quickly.”

“As we saw how quickly COVID-19 was growing in the U.S., we realized it might be a matter of weeks before we'd have to close our physical offices for the safety of our staff and volunteers,” says Danielle. “While most teams were set-up to work from home, the Lifeline was a whole different conversation. Since its first day 22 years ago, TrevorLifeline always operated out of a physical call center.”

Building a remote hotline

The Trevor Project needed a way to transition TrevorLifeline to a remote model while ensuring the data of their constituents would remain secure. And, they would need to do this as soon as possible to prevent any lapse in service. In less than a week, The Trevor Project and Traction on Demand teams moved from first talks to a plan of action. A Statement of Work was signed on Monday, March 9th, and four days later the solution had been pushed to production.

It was never an option for us to close the Lifeline.Danielle Ehsanipour, Director of the Lifeline

“Because we put relationships first, we could really lean into our values and drop some of the process,” says Aria Ypma-Wollen, Business Development Manager at Traction on Demand. “We had strong organizational trust on both sides so we could move as fast as possible.”

For The Trevor Project to enable Lifeline counsellors to work remotely, they needed to transform their data security model. Previously, counsellors could only access data directly on-site at call centers. Enabling remote access for counsellors meant defining what data they could see and what would be protected.

Technical Lead at Traction on Demand, Matt Freedman, had worked with The Trevor Project in the past and immediately dove into the project, taking on much of the work himself to streamline communications.

The Trevor Project are a great organization to partner with and I loved having the chance to continue supporting their work.Matt Freedman, Technical Lead at Traction on Demand

“It was a small sacrifice to make sure The Trevor Project can keep doing the high impact work they do,” says Matt. “The Trevor Project are a great organization to partner with and I loved having the chance to continue supporting their work.”

Having worked together on three previous projects, Matt and The Trevor Project team had built a level of trust that allowed them to accomplish a lot in a very short amount of time.

“Matt knows our org forwards and backwards,” says John Callery. “Having him take the helm on this project is deeply meaningful, and we all sleep more easily at night knowing he’s working with us.”

Consistency in a time of crisis

On Wednesday, March 18th, The Trevor Project went live with their remote solution and began a series of one-on-one sessions with counsellors to smooth the transition to telecommuting. With the emphasis of this project on maintaining a tight timeline, work will be done to continue fine-tuning and maintaining the solution. This event marks the first time in twenty-one years that The Trevor Project has had to consider telecommuting, and the solution may open up future opportunities to recruit counsellors for the TrevorLifeline around the country without the need to centralize them at call centers in New York and Los Angeles.

No matter where they’re located, Lifeline counsellors are continuing to provide 24-hour support, and in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the work they do is more important than ever.

“We have been hearing young people express anxiety about social isolation stemming from COVID-19,” says Kevin Wong, Head of Communications at The Trevor Project. “Recent school closures also have some students worrying about whether or not they’ll be able to go to college in the fall. For many LGBTQ students from unsupportive families, college is a more open and progressive environment that they can look forward to.”

What does it mean for The Trevor Project to maintain service during a time when we are practicing social distancing and anxieties are high? For the thousands of LGBTQ teens that rely on the TrevorLifeline every year, it means they can continue to receive support when they need it most. For volunteers and staff, it also means staying safe throughout this public health crisis, while they continue to provide life-saving support to youth.

“It was never an option for us to close the Lifeline,” says Director of the Lifeline, Danielle Ehsanipour. “Youth rely on us every day and, with all the uncertainty COVID-19 brings, it is critical that Trevor counselors remain here for youth in crisis 24/7. It was a massive and absolutely necessary undertaking to ensure the safety of our counselors and the LGBTQ youth in crisis that we serve every day.”

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