Sound of listening a welcome noise to troubled callers

October 11, 1994|By SUSAN REIMER

There is no sign on the door. You would not know they were there. But if you stand quietly outside that door, you can hear the soft, low sounds of women listening.

They are the volunteers of WISH, Women in Self Help, and when troubled women ring their phones, they practice a special kind of listening. The kind of listening that hears between the lines, the kind that lets the caller talk her way to a clearing in the woods. Listening without judgment.

"Women solve problems by talking," says Mary Macedo, a WISH volunteer for 14 years. "But women today are isolated, and they don't have anyone who will listen to them long enough.

"We will give them as much time as they need."

"Maybe all we can do is listen," says Miriam Perlman, with WISH for 18 years. "Maybe that is the best thing we do."

WISH volunteers do more than listen. They have a Rolodex full of government and non-profit agencies that can help if a woman is battered or out of food or about to have the power cut off.

Long hours on their ancient rotary phones have taught them to hear when a woman needs professional help, and they will walk her through her first trip to a lawyer or a psychologist.

WISH is there for the dozens of mental health clinics, abuse centers and parole officers who suggest it as part of a woman's after-care program.

WISH is there in August, when all the psychologists leave on vacation -- it is their busiest month. And WISH is there when the insurance has run out but a woman's need to talk has not.

"We don't give advice; we offer alternatives and choices," says Ms. Macedo. "We try to get the women to discover their own resources. And we can help them learn where to look for help."

WISH had its beginnings 20 years ago this month -- over coffee. Lily Adlin, Milly Kaplan and Barbara Seidel, all social workers or psychologists, talked about how grateful they were to have each other to talk to. But they knew, too, that the increasingly transient nature of women's lives made such kinship and support difficult for many women.

They contacted Esther Lazarus, then retiring head of the Baltimore Department of Social Services, who helped them find a spare room and some phones. With support from the National Council of Jewish Women and Notre Dame College, they have answered 53,000 calls.

In 1974, most of the calls were from women who felt trapped, without choices. When the economy shrank, the calls changed, coming from women who needed financial assistance. Then, because women found the courage to talk anonymously with other women, WISH was among the first groups to identify the phenomenon of the battered woman.

"The women did not even know they were battered," says Ms. Perlman. "They thought it was their lot in life."

Most of the calls have to do with social relationships. "But some of them are from women who have addictions, or women who are facing homelessness with children," says Ms. Perlman. "Those are the most frustrating calls. We want to wave a magic wand, and we can't."

Some who answer the WISH phones are troubled by that helplessness. They want to send a basket of food or an envelope full of money.

Others are frustrated by not knowing how the callers' stories end. They want a follow-up. Others want to tell the callers what to do, how to change their lives. Not surprisingly, one of the best volunteers WISH ever had was a manicurist -- someone who listened for a living.

"To listen without judgment -- that is the toughest thing we teach our volunteers," says Ms. Macedo.

The calls to WISH do not always end with a solution or a revelation, but they often end with a small shift in perception, the hint of new courage or lifted spirits.

"Women do not always trust their own judgment. They are unsure of themselves," says Charlotte Waxman, who joined WISH 17 years ago after retiring as a social worker. "Often, all we do is give them a kind of permission to do what they knew was right all along."

It is often true that if you talk about your troubles long enough, you might hear the solution in your own words, in your own voice. That is the guiding principle of these women. If you call, they will listen -- for as long as you wish.

The women at WISH will listen from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday. Call 433-9400.

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