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How the U.S. leading suicide and crisis hotline for LGBTQ youth is surviving the pandemic with a little help from its Big Tech friends

Jerry Bowles Profile picture for user jbowles October 29, 2020
Vonage and Salesforce are helping The Trevor Project volunteer counselors work safely from home to help youth in distress during the Covid crisis.

trevor film
(via The Trevor Project)

All phone calls are important to businesses. Being able to quickly deliver a knowledgeable, responsive, and well-trained voice on the other end when customers need help is often the key to the customer experience and repeat business. For The Trevor Project, the leading U.S. national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to the LGBTQ community, the stakes are even higher. The ability to connect can literally be a matter of life and death. 

The pandemic has made the challenges even more difficult. Dan Fichter, Head of AI & Engineering, The Trevor Project, explained to me: 

Before the Covid crisis, the Trevor Lifeline typically had close to 300 volunteer crisis counselors between its two call centers but once it hit we had to enable our staff to quickly transition to a 100% virtual workplace, without sacrificing the quality of connections to our clients or security to ensure their privacy.  

At the same time, the volume of young people contacting us had more than doubled. With a record number of calls coming into the Lifeline program and the organization being forced to go remote, we were fortunate to have Vonage and Salesforce as partners to help keep our suite of crisis intervention and suicide prevention programs up and running.

One vital consideration when going remote was to ensure that we maintain the high level of service we provide from our in-person call centers which includes having 24/7 operations from our staff and having clear escalation procedures.  Going remote for the first time in our organization's history could have been a six to eight-month project. But, with Vonage's help, we were able to accelerate it to two weeks in March.

Fichter, who came to the organization from Oracle Moat, says that a key technology breakthrough came in 2018 when The Trevor Project switched to Vonage Contact Center with Salesforce integration: 

We were using a number of different applications to enable our digital services. For the Trevor Lifeline, for example, the separate applications were not easily integrated. Crisis counselors had to be located at six stations connected to hard phone lines and the phone system did not integrate with the organization's CRM. That meant there were many limitations in terms of how and where the counselors were able to take calls. We had a real scalability problem.

Fichter says the organization has experienced close to 100% uptime and 24/7 on-call support, helping youth through crisis calls on its Lifeline. Vonage has enabled The non-profit to build custom tools that surface critical information for safety planning using dynamic routing capabilities for escalation, which can make all the difference in their highest-risk calls, connecting those in need of support to their crisis counselors and deepening the impact in the organization's mission to end suicide among LGBTQ youth.

A broad set of services

The organization offers a suite of 24/7 crisis intervention and suicide prevention programs. Those include Trevor Lifeline, which is the call center element, but also Trevor Text and Trevor Chat as well as the world's largest safe space social networking site for LGBTQ youth, which is called Trevor Space.  

It also operates an education program with resources for youth serving adults and organizations and advocacy department, fighting for pro-LGBTQ legislation and against anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and policy positions, and has a research teamaimed at discovering the most effective means to help young LGBTQ people in crisis. Said Fichter:

Obviously, technology has played a key part in our ability to scale and deliver high-quality connections to people in distress.  From August 2019 through July of this year-our fiscal year--we directly served 150,000 contacts, which includes calls and chats and texts. And, of those, our Lifeline served more than 85,000 crisis contacts from LGBTQ youth who reached out.

The pandemic has made our mission even more critical, not simply because of the increased volume of calls, but because so many people no longer have access to their usual support systems and who, because of Covid safety measures, are no long able to connect in the same way with friends and family for emotional support as they did before.  Some are stuck in abusive home environments with nowhere to go.

That's why in moving to remote work it was vital that we be able to assure best in class technology, which included partnering closely with Vonage to make sure that our counselors would be able to take calls privately and securely and with very high audio quality from home setups. As you can imagine, not every person who's a volunteer with our organization has exactly the same sort of bandwidth on their home internet connection. But Vonage was a great help to us in solving that and making sure that that calls are clear and really high quality on both ends. The transition also included our organizations hiring some full-time remote technology support to ensure that counselors could conserve youth remotely.  

My take

The Trevor Project is a worthy cause with some good friends in the high tech industry. Last year, it was one of 20 organizations that shared $25 million in grants from, credit and consulting from Google Cloud and coaching by Google's AI experts as a grantee of the Google AI Impact Challenge. The Google AI Impact Challenge is an open call to nonprofits, social enterprises, and research institutions from around the world to submit their ideas to use AI to help address societal challenges.  The Trevor Project received a $1.5M USD grant to incorporate machine learning and natural language processing into its crisis services. Fichter said:

Vonage has been helpful to us in that some of the some of the best practices that we've picked up through working with the Vonage team have been have been helpful in conversations that we've had with other crisis response and public health organizations in the last few months. Some of those conversations are toward open source collaboration on crisis technology and some of them are toward doing joint clinical or AI research. I think it's  it's really important that public health organizations crisis response organizations, and anyone who's in this space leverage advanced technologies and collaborate on best practices to solve some of society's tough problems.  

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