SOUTH LOOP — For the last 2½ years, Carolyn Smigla has volunteered for two hours every Friday, talking teenagers — and sometimes parents — through their darkest moments on the National Runaway Safeline.
"I have no advice to give anybody, but what we do is talk, listen and ask questions and help people find their own answers. And you can hear the moment when a caller goes from a youth in crisis to a youth in power. And it's a humbling thing," said Smigla, who was named the Safeline's 2015 Volunteer of the Year.
"It's just a voice on the line, but it's the voice of a human being. Sometimes it's easier to talk to a supportive voice over the phone," she said. "I had a youth call ... she was 12 years old and had recently moved with her father to a large city. She didn't know anybody. She went to a new school.
"This little girl had very few connections made, her mother lived in another state. So we talked about that. We talked about her school work, how to talk to her dad. How to tell her dad that she failed a test and he was not going to react well. So we talked about what to tell him and what had worked in the past," Smigla said.
As a volunteer, Smigla can't shy away from the issues that seem to linger in the minds of troubled teenagers — from bullying, loneliness, suicide and running away among them — because, for many teens, she is the first and only person they've trusted with their deepest pains.
When the problem seemed to have been handled with the young girl, Smigla asked if there was anything else she wanted to talk about.
"Yeah," the little voice on the other line softly said, "My grandfather, um, killed himself last year and I've been thinking about doing the same thing, too."
"I had a moment of panic because we had been through her support system and she didn't have a lot. So I thought to myself 'What can I offer this little girl?' Then I realized all I have to offer is the crisis and prevention model so we started from the beginning," Smigla said crediting the "phenomenal" training at the safeline for getting her through one of her toughest calls.
Since 2013, Smigla has volunteered more than 215 hours at the call center and logged more than 160 crisis calls. And "for exceeding her commitment to assisting the youth and their families across the country" on April 22, Smigla was named the volunteer of the year at the Safeline's Volunteer and Community Recognition Event at Blackfinn Ameripub, 65 W. Kinzie St.
She said the honor left her "gobsmacked" and "stunned."
The National Runaway Safeline, which operates at 3080 N. Lincoln Ave., was started in 1971 "to fill a need for a comprehensive crisis intervention for young people in Chicago." It began as a centralized organization with free 24-hour services with expertise in all youth-related services, according to its website.
In 1974, the agency as given a 8-month federal demonstration grant to establish a national hotline. During the 8-month period, it received more than 11,000 calls. The organization now handles more than 100,000 calls each year, according to its website.
"Volunteers like Carolyn are the lifeblood of our organization, and without them we wouldn’t be as effective in providing the prevention and crisis intervention resources needed by youth, families and community members today. We congratulate Carolyn on this honor, and sincerely thank her for giving selflessly of her time and talents," said Maureen Blaha, executive director for the National Runaway Safeline.
Growing up in Portage Park, Smigla was constantly involved in teen service trips that took her as far as Appalachia and as close as other parts of Chicago. She benefited from them along with her relationship with youth ministers, which inspired her to want to help others, she said.
While her passion for helping young people began much earlier, her real call to action came after a tragic moment about two years ago when a dear friend lost her 17-year-old brother to suicide.
"I was headed into the Loop for a farmers market. There are homeless people downtown all the time — it's usually adult men — and I happened to see a young woman. She was so young and she looked so exhausted. I was feeling such compassion towards teenagers and wanting to do more," Smigla said, adding that's when she realized what she could do to help young people in the wake of her friend's loss.
"The National Runaway Safeline from when I was a kid — I knew it was there. Somewhere in my subconscious a confluence of circumstances brought it to the fore and I sent an email that day and began the training."
According to the National Runaway Safeline website, each year between 1.6 million and 2.8 million youths run away and those between ages 12-17 are at a higher risk of homelessness than adults. Young men and women run away at the same pace, but women are more likely to seek help through shelters and hotlines.
Safeline volunteers can be reached at 1-800-RUN-AWAY (786-2929).
Risk Factors for Youth Runaways (according to the National Runaway Safeline)
• 12 percent spent at least one night outside.
• 32 percent have attempted suicide at some point in their lives.
• 50 percent of homeless youths 16 or older reported being expelled, suspended or dropping out of school.
• About 48 percent of youths on the street and 32 percent living in shelters reported being pregnant at some point.
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