Holiday Donation Announcement!
Posted on December 11, 2020
An Interview With Robert Ridge, Executive Director of Distress Centres of Greater Toronto
The CarHub community knows that every year we make sure to give back in the holiday season. This year, the team sat down and discussed what we could do to make sure that our donation would have the biggest impact possible in what has been a very abnormal year.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected each and every one of us and no one has been immune to the stress that it has caused. That’s why we decided to give the entirety of our holiday donation amount to a great service that does so much for people in need, Distress Centres of Greater Toronto.
CarHub Cares. Our holiday charity is just one way that we show it.
To give our community a better sense of what Distress Centres of Greater Toronto does and how they make an impact, we sat down with their Executive Director, Robert Ridge.
CarHub - Robert, can you tell me a little bit about who you are and about the organization that you work for?
My name is Robert Ridge and I’m the Executive Director of the Distress Centres of Greater Toronto. The Distress Centres of Greater Toronto is a crisis support organization that provides emotional and mental health support to people in both Toronto and the Region of Peel.
CarHub - What specific services does the Distress Centres of Greater Toronto offer?
We have both inbound and outbound programs, so we have a couple of main crisis lines for people to call if they’re feeling lonely or isolated or need any kind of mental health support. We also have a number of priority lines, for instance, we operate the Crisis Link service for the TTC, which provides a link for people on the subway platform if they’re experiencing suicidal ideation. We also run several outbound programs and these programs are primarily aimed at seniors who need some emotional or other forms of support. Then we have a program called the survivor support program which is intended for people who have experienced loss through suicide or homicide.
CarHub - Amazing! So, you have a lot of great services offered to people in need. Have you seen a dramatic impact on the people who you provide services to due to COVID-19?
So, we’ve certainly seen an impact over the past 6 to 8 months. I’m not sure that I would call it a dramatic impact yet but it certainly may go there. We’ve noticed an increase in the number of inbound calls to our service, probably about 10%, but probably more troubling is the increased severity of those calls. Almost everyone who calls mentions COVID as an issue. So for people who have had existing mental health conditions or have felt isolated or lonely, COVID has only made their situation worse.
CarHub - Right, of course, that makes sense. So, how has COVID-19 affected your processes at Distress Centres of Greater Toronto?
Like a lot of organizations, it’s affected them pretty dramatically. We have four facilities where the volunteer responders come to take calls and prior to COVID about 90% of our calls were taken at one of those four locations, the other 10% were taken remotely. COVID has completely flipped that. As of today, 100% of our calls are being taken by volunteers working remotely. All of our support to our survivor support program is being facilitated remotely as well. So all of our four locations are closed now but we’re still providing all of the same services that we did when those four locations were open. We made a shift to remote responding within a period of about six weeks. We moved all of our responders to basically work out of their homes. Up until a couple of weeks ago when both Peel and Toronto were locked down, did have a few volunteers who preferred to come into the facility to take calls but since the lockdown, we’ve had to change that.
CarHub - Was that a lengthy and rigorous process? Switching to allow the volunteers to work from home?
We had some experience in having staff work from home and I think that really helped, we had the infrastructure in place, we had a great technology provider who provided support throughout the process. It was difficult though. It was more difficult on staff and volunteers who had to very, very quickly find a way to work remotely when most of their experience had been in taking calls in a more controlled facility environment.
CarHub - Can you tell me a little bit about your volunteers and counsellors? Who are they, where are they from and what is their level of experience?
Anyone can be a crisis line volunteer. So, if you’re interested in becoming a crisis line volunteer, you’re first screened. Then you go through a vulnerable sector screening and a number of other screens to ensure that you have the foundation for the role, then you go through a training regimen that includes about 40 hours of training. Prior to COVID, this was in-class training, now we’re offering it virtually. You typically work with a mentor for a number of calls until you’re comfortable enough to take the calls on your own. We have volunteers who come from every walk of life. We have many students who are interested in becoming a police officer, a firefighter or a paramedic or perhaps entering the mental health field. We have people who have retired and are interested in giving back and everything in between. We have a wide range of people who are volunteering for the organization. We have well over 500 active volunteers at the current time. With respect to the counsellors in the support program, they too typically have lived experience. They often have experience with loss and suicide and they too work with a mentor to prepare themselves for the role. Again, they range from people who are students all the way up to seniors and everything in between, it’s a big mix.
CarHub - That sounds very in-depth. Can you give me a sense of the costs involved with running a program like this?
The primary costs of running a distress centre relate to people. We have a relatively small staff given the amount of work that we do. We have about twenty full-time staff. Most of those staff work directly in coordinating, supporting and training volunteers to work on the lines. In addition to staff, we have our four facilities and then we have all of the telecommunication infrastructure that is needed to facilitate inbound and outbound calls.
CarHub - Can you give me some examples of the types of calls that you may receive?
We receive calls that range from people feeling lonely and isolated all the way up to people experiencing suicidal ideation. Many calls are from people who have very few people, if anyone in their life and they’re just looking for some emotional support to make it through the day or make it through the week. We get calls from people who want to discuss relationship issues, they may have gone through a relationship change in the last little while and they want to talk about that. We have people who feel anxious or depressed and they want to talk about that. People can call us and talk about anything that’s on their mind and hopefully by the end of the call we’ve been able to make a difference in their life and make them feel better.
CarHub - Definitely. It’s great to know that a service like this exists. What does your follow-up process look like after you’ve spoken to an individual in need?
In most cases we would just encourage people who are calling to call back if they want to talk further about their situation, in some cases, we would make referrals to other programs that might be well suited for that individual based on their situation. That would be the primary reason that we would follow up with an individual. In some cases, if someone has a situation that requires on-going support, they would enter one of our programs where we would make more predictable contact with them over a period of time.
CarHub - That’s great. What percentage of your funding at Distress Centres of Greater Toronto comes from a charitable donation and where does the rest of the funding come from?
Our funding is fairly diversified, it looks something like this: we have about 30% of our funding coming from fundraising, about 30% coming from government grants, 30% coming from United Way and the remaining 10% coming from earned revenue sources, so contracts to provide services. So, we have a fairly diversified portfolio of revenue.
CarHub - So, how would the funds from a charitable donation from Carhub Automotive Group be allotted?
What we’ll probably do with those funds is use them to help support our remote responders. We’ve incurred significant costs this year and we expect next year as well to equip our remote responders to take calls. We’ve put all the infrastructure in place for them to have connections at home to provide headsets and in some cases to provide the technology itself. Those costs have been really significant this year and that’s likely how we’ll use those funds, to support our ongoing ability to deliver services remotely.
When you think about it, COVID’s not going to just end, there’s going to be a long tail with respect to things getting back to normal. I don’t anticipate that staff or volunteers are going to all of a sudden feel comfortable coming back into our facilities. Some will but I think for the vast majority it’s going to take some time before we’re able to re-establish that sense of normalcy with people.
CarHub - Absolutely. It’s really great to know that the Carhub donation will be going to an organization that’s so helpful to the community like Distress Centres of Greater Toronto.
Do you have any suggestions to help ease the mental health strain of individuals who may be struggling?
I don’t think that I would have suggestions that would vary dramatically from things that you’ve already likely heard but I’ll still share a few. I think the first would be that for someone anxious about COVID, don’t spend a lot of time watching the TV or watching news online because the news is so persistently negative that it can have a huge impact on your mental health. So, limiting your exposure to those types of messages would be my number one piece of advice. The other advice would be exercise, be careful about your diet, make sure you’re getting enough sleep. Having some foundational elements in place with respect to your health can really make a big difference during a more stressful time like COVID. And COVID’s not going away any time soon so, you know, I think to the extent that you can think about and work on your own habits. Perhaps consider what your personal habits are for calming your mind. It might be meditation or yoga or similar practices that you may want to consider to see if they can help you.
CarHub - Absolutely. So, which areas of your organization currently require the most support and awareness?
You know, I would say that we could use even more exposure with respect to the existence of our crisis lines. To help people understand that they’re free, they’re available 24/7, they’re safe and anonymous, they’re safe to call. At the other end of the line, there are people like you and me who just have an interest in helping other people. That would be my number one call for greater awareness, it’s just letting people know that we’re here and we’re here to help.
CarHub - Fantastic. What does Distress Centres of Greater Toronto do to raise this awareness? How do you get the word out there?
We have a number of organizations who are aware of us, so we’re pretty plugged into the mental health infrastructure of Peel and Toronto regions. We’ve been around since 1967 so we’re well known and we use social media to draw attention to ourselves. We don’t have any budget to advertise our services but we do rely on social media and our reputation from our partners who we work with every day.
CarHub - Absolutely. And social media is such a powerful tool, we’ll use the Carhub social media channels to promote your services as well.
Oh, that would be great, thank you!
CarHub - So what’s next for Distress Centres of Greater Toronto in 2021 in terms of plans and programs in the new year?
On a positive note, we’ve learned so much from COVID as I suspect that other organizations have as well. It will permanently change the way we run our operation. We know now that people can work effectively remotely, they can respond to calls remotely and by allowing more remote responders, we effectively increase our volunteer pool and by doing training virtually we can train a person from anywhere. They don’t have to be local to Peel or Toronto so it can open tremendous doors for us in terms of volunteer participation. And we’re a volunteer-driven organization so that’s the exciting part if you can say there is one about COVID, that it forced us to look at our operation and make some changes very quickly and that’s given us the confidence to go into 2021 with some new ways of working that are going to be effective in the long run and we’re really excited about that.
CarHub - Great, thanks, Robert. Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
You know, I would just say that we’re really appreciative of the CarHub donation. That kind of support means so much to us and it goes a long way. We’re a lean and effective sort of organization and we punch way above our weight in terms of the work we do and that support was unexpected and very, very much appreciated so thank you.
CarHub - Thank you, Robert!