Volunteering at Scarleteen

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been volunteering for Scarleteen since the beginning of this year, and it’s been a fantastic experience. We’re taking a direct-service break this week, so it only seems fitting to take this time (when I’d usually be on-shift) to talk a bit about what I’ve been doing and why it’s been so rewarding.

I’ve been aware of Scarleteen for at least ten years now; I was near the top of the target age range when I first started reading the articles, but I honestly think a lot of them are helpful and applicable to a wide range of people and experiences, not just youth.  (Some of my favorite articles: 1, 2, 3)

The articles and advice columns are a fantastic reference, to be sure, but it turns out that I was mostly unaware of the area of the site where a lot of the work goes on – the message boards! I knew they existed, but as I joined a few message board communities in my early internetting days but never felt particularly comfortable in them, and was at the top end of the Scarleteen target age range when I noticed this part of the site, I never paid it much attention. But they are a huge part of the work that ST does; the message boards are the main way that we can provide direct service and support to users. There’s a texting service (which I am not trained on and don’t work with) and a relatively new live chat as well, but most of the people who access ST for direct service come to the message boards.

Late last year, Heather Corinna (ST’s founder/executive director) she asked if I was interested in volunteering and even though it wasn’t really something I’d thought about before, it sounded like a great idea. My part-time job means I have a good bit of free time! I feel really strongly about sexuality and sexual health issues! All the skills I picked up in my rape crisis center training have been languishing, mostly unused, for almost three years! I’ve admired Heather for years and thought it would be pretty neat to work with her! We had a phone interview and while I was a little overwhelmed thinking about the commitment at first, I made the decision pretty quickly to give it a try.

Now that I’ve been at ST for a few months, here’s some of what I’ve been thinking about:

A LOT of young people are terrified of pregnancy, and many of them don’t have a clear understanding of what constitutes a pregnancy risk.

A large number of the questions that come up on the boards and in live chat are related to potential pregnancy risks. I definitely get wanting to avoid becoming pregnant when you aren’t ready for it, but it’s interesting to note that a lot of users are so worried about this that even when they’re describing something that has NO pregnancy risk at all (dry humping, semen being transferred from sheets/hands/loofahs/toilet seats to the vagina, oral sex, etc.). Some of these users do admit to having anxiety issues that make these worries a lot harder to deal with but (SURPRISE!) another complicating factor is that many of them have either had no sex education at all or have had “abstinence-only” sex ed classes, which in some way are worse because many of them actively give students false information. (You can insert a mental image of me shaking my fist at the heavens while yelling “ABSTINENCE OOOONLYYYYY!” here.)

Everyone has the right to have their questions and concerns addressed respectfully, whether I like them or not.

This can be a tough one for me. It’s kind of like customer service; it’s really easy to be friendly and helpful to customers who are easy to talk to and thank you for your time. It’s a lot harder to be just as helpful to folks who are cranky, ungrateful, or who just rub you the wrong way. However, those people still need to be helped. Of course if users are outright rude we can address that, but just because my instinct is to put my best efforts into answering the questions of the people I imagine I’d get on best with in other aspects of my life I can’t stop there. I have to look at posts by people I find irritating and spend just as much mental effort on addressing their concerns. We have a chat channel for staff and volunteers, and sometimes it’s helpful to just say “oh no, [x] is back and being frustrating” and vent about them there before being helpful and friendly in public. Again, it’s like waiting until you get in the back room with the door closed to complain about problem customers.

Having said that, though, almost everyone I deal with on the boards and in live chat is really fantastic. And it means a lot when any user thanks me for my time. Sometimes it’s extra amusing when they say “thanks, ma’am;” I get that a lot on live chat.

 Setting and enforcing boundaries with users can be tough, but it’s really important. Plus, the practice is good for me.

“No” is a word I’ve had a hard time with for most of my life. Fairly recently, I was explaining to a friend that my first instinct, when asked for a favor, is to say “yes” before I actually take the time to think about if I can or want to do the thing in question. It’s an unfortunate habit, and I didn’t quite realize how ingrained it was until I described it to someone else. I’ve been making an effort to do better at this in the past few years, though, and I am slowly getting a lot better at saying no and setting boundaries.

This is something we have to do with users fairly often. As I mentioned above, pregnancy scares are a huge percentage of the questions we get, and we have a limit on how many times we’ll answer the same questions from one user on this topic. In addition, we have people ask us fairly often for help with things that either need to be talked over with a doctor or a therapist; we can’t offer diagnoses or suicide intervention help on the site (although if users need help finding those services in their area, we will help with that to the best of our ability). It’s not what volunteers are trained in and outside of ST’s scope, but a lot of users want us to provide those services.

Especially with mental health issues, we can get a lot of push-back from users. And I can understand it – if they feel safe talking to us about other issues and don’t feel like they have other options or are hesitant to reach out for help from other sources, I can understand why they might want to talk about suicidal thoughts or mysterious medical symptoms on the message boards. But even so, we can’t provide that help, so it often becomes important to remind users of the limits we’ve set on the scope of the direct services. The first time I did this, it was hard, but now that I’ve had practice it’s become easier and I feel like it’s good practice both for my continuing work with ST and in my own life, where I struggle a lot of the time to say “let’s drop this topic for now” or “I don’t have time for this” or “I’d rather not.” Sometimes I need a reminder to hold a hard line when users start to push, but as time goes on I think I keep getting better at it.

Which brings me to:

Personally, I’m getting a LOT out of doing this work.

Clearly, the point of volunteering is not just to feel good about yourself, but I can’t deny the fact that this has been a hugely positive part of my life for the past few months! Having a set schedule of shifts has meant I am better about managing my time. I’ve had the chance to write two advice columns for the main site; the most recent one got a lot of positive feedback and I’m quite proud of it. My fellow volunteers are fantastic people and I love bouncing ideas off of them and slowly getting to know them. A couple are even going to be in my neck of the woods later this year and have expressed interest in meeting up, which should be fun.

 Also exciting is the fact that I’ll be attending the Gender Spectrum conference on behalf of Scarleteen this summer. We do have a decent number of users coming in with gender identity questions and concerns, and while I have my own experiences to draw from in talking to them, I’m really excited to hear more current information at this conference.

At WisCon this past weekend, there was a sex ed panel Saturday, which  I was really excited to attend. I had dinner the night before with a group of folks that included one of the panelists and had mentioned volunteering with ST, so when the panel discussion drifted towards sex ed resources online she encouraged me to talk a little about the website and direct services. I just talked for a minute or two, but it was really surreal to think “I’m representing this organization that I have so much respect for.”

I’m a part of it, now, and not just an admirer from afar! What a great feeling.

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