Lifeline has offered a reassuring voice on the end of the line for thousands of people during its 50 years operating in Ballarat.
Due to his position and the centrality of the Sydney Central Methodist Mission where he worked, Reverend Dr Sir Alan Walker would often receive calls from people in distress.
One night he received a call from a distressed and suicidal young man. Dr Walker spoke to him for a long time trying to talk him out of it but sadly the man later took his life.
Realising the man felt completely isolated in the middle of a city where millions of people lived, Dr Walker was determined to start a service for people to call in their darkest moments or simply when they needed someone to talk to.
In 1963 he founded Lifeline, determined not to let isolation and a lack of support be the cause of more potentially preventable deaths.
Founded in Sydney, the service rapidly expanded to various locations in Queensland and South Australia before being established in Melbourne.
In 1969 the Ballarat Parish Mission received a letter from Dr Walker, proposing it consider establishing a Lifeline centre in the Ballarat region.
The letter was taken to the committee of management and then to a quarterly meeting, founding member David Pratt OAM recalled.
"We thought it was worthy of further investigation. There was great enthusiasm to establish a Lifeline centre in Ballarat," Mr Pratt said.
It took several years to get the centre up and running, with support from the Ballarat Council of Churches.
We didn't have any money. It was a leap in faith. We didn't know how we would go, who would pay and how many people we might get ringing up and we had no staff. It was a daunting job- David Pratt OAM
"We didn't have any money. It was a leap of faith. We didn't know how we would go, who would pay and how many people we might get ringing up and we had no staff. It was a daunting job," Mr Pratt said.
"But we had the vision, the people here who had the ability and the faith to be able to go forward with it and subsequently we managed to get the service up."
At the time the Melbourne centre was still at a provisional stage and was unable to support the establishment of another site, so the Lifeline centre in Adelaide sponsored the service to begin operating in Ballarat from November 14, 1971.
He distinctly remembers that first day, with both Dr Walker attending and the minister for Ballarat, Murray Byrne, making the first call to the line.
"We thought we'd get about 20 calls a week but it started to rise from there."
The centre was based downstairs in the manse on the corner of Dawson and Mair streets, and the group managed to pull together enough money to lay down some carpet and bring in some furniture.
After the minister at the time developed incurable cancer and passed away, the baton was passed to Mr Pratt and a number of committee members to run the service with support from a number of churches in the area.
Mr Pratt said there was some resistance from medical professionals, stemming from "professional pride", with the belief the committee was a "mob of amateurs dabbling in stuff we didn't understand". But when a psychiatrist and committed Christian joined the board he managed to persuade other medical professionals to support rather than oppose the service.
Yet just as it started to get going, the initially tight budget saw them run out of funds to pay its part-time director. Mr Pratt recalled approaching a trust through their solicitors, who were working in Ballarat at the time, and explaining the situation - the service was up and running but it was strapped for cash.
"I've never had to beg for money before but I sure did that day," Mr Pratt said. "I said to the dedicated counsellors, keep up the good work - you don't know how much your service means to our community. Without you our community would be nowhere near as rich as it is today or in the future."
Incredibly, they then received a cheque for $4000 and he was told not to hesitate to reach out if more funds were required.
Committee members and volunteers made a concerted effort to raise awareness of the service among what Mr Pratt described as a smaller Ballarat community, including public appearances and preaching at churches on 'Lifeline Sundays'.
An array of people took the calls, including Mr Pratt's wife Bev, nuns from the Catholic Church and other volunteers from churches across the city.
Ms Pratt attended the first training course and was there for the first day on the phone line.
"It was terrifying to be at the end of the line. We had very little training and we all felt like we were in the deep end but gradually you gained confidence," she said.
It was terrifying to be at the end of the line. We had very little training and we all felt like we were in the deep end but gradually you gained confidence- Bev Pratt
With Ballarat a much smaller place all those decades ago, call-takers did not make their role known to others in the community to maintain anonymity, but sometimes they did recognise the voice of callers.
Ms Pratt doesn't remember exactly how many calls they received each shift back in the early days, but does remember there were some regular callers.
This included one woman who would call several times a day. After some time Ms Pratt unexpectedly met her and found the experience reassuring to find that she was okay.
Ms Pratt described the call-takers as being "very dedicated and committed" to their role, even taking extra shifts as required, including overnight before going out and attending work the following morning.
A bed was set-up in the manse, and call-takers could lie down and rest if the phones were quiet for a period.
Despite the long hours and distress at some of what she was exposed to, Ms Pratt said she got "far more" from Lifeline than she had given.
"I learned the value of listening, being non-judgemental and showing empathy. Words are very important to people who are in some form of difficulty. You also learn so much about yourself."
The Honourable Murray Byrne, the minister for regional development and member for Ballarat at the time also helped out financially and volunteered his time as secretary for many years.
"These sorts of community connections made the whole thing possible and it went on from there and got more professional," Mr Pratt said.
There were many changes to the service over the years.
While when it first started there was not much supervision, it developed into a situation where there was professional oversight and call-takers could call a supervisor to debrief.
Notes were read by psychologists and if they believed a call-taker needed advice or support they would write a note on a pink piece of paper and place it in the call-takers file.
After some time the call centre joined the national grid, meaning calls taken at the Ballarat centre were no longer all from locals and it began to operate under the umbrella of Lifeline Australia which receives funding from numerous sources.
"When Lifeline started there were very few centres. There was no national Lifeline board. It's something that grew out of necessity over a period of time," Mr Pratt said.
To this day some Lifeline centres are licensed to run by community groups or churches. In Ballarat, it is run by Uniting.
After some time the service was recognised professionally and a memorandum of understanding was entered into with what is now Federation University.
This allowed students studying courses such as social sciences or psychology to obtain credits for working on the line.
At one point the Ballarat Central Uniting Church was extended to accommodate a Lifeline Training Centre, built with money from a trust in the community.
All of this work helped to raise the service's profile among the community, while also making the community a better place.
"It is the enrichment of people who work in the service that help the [broader] community," Mr Pratt said. "The skills they learn are transferred elsewhere, both in personality and ability and subsequently we have a far better community as a result."
Mr Pratt said publicity around Lifeline's work had resulted in it becoming the go-to helpline service.
With thousands of staff and volunteers operating from more than 40 centres nationwide, Lifeline now answers more than a million calls a year, including a proportion from people at high risk of suicide, 24-hours a day, seven days a week.
Lifeline Ballarat manager, Paul Huggett, said the service had continued to grow over the years.
While Ballarat is now part of the national system, its volunteers answer just over 10,000 calls a year.
"If you were living in Ballarat and calling Lifeline, the chances of you getting through to someone in Ballarat is slim. You get put through to the first available call taker and they could be in Broome, Townsville, Sydney or Adelaide," he said.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic a "really busy day" would see 2400 calls picked up across Australia.
But at the height of lockdowns and restrictions in NSW and Victoria, the service was averaging 3500 calls a day.
Mr Huggett said there was currently a very dedicated and committed group of volunteer crisis workers who manned the phones in Ballarat.
These volunteers, of which there are about 60, have flexibility with their shifts and oversight and support from staff.
The training to become a crisis support worker takes at least six months and the individuals receive a lot of support before they enter the phone room.
This is a story that emerged out of a simple seed that has grown into a program where Lifeline is now a service that everyone in the community knows about. They know that if they find themselves in crisis or in that desperate hour there is a voice on the end of the phone that they can trust, be comforted by and also get some good strategies to keep them safe- Lifeline Ballarat manager Paul Huggett
"We are working with people who are in their darkest moment. Crisis workers are prepared well for that moment when a call comes through that might be the voice of somebody who is genuinely considering that suicide is the most viable option that they've got.
"That's a harrowing phone call to receive but we have a roster of support staff available to volunteers 24/7."
The 50th anniversary highlights the significance of the Lifeline, which stemmed from the passion of a congregation into what continues to be an integral part of the fabric of the Ballarat community.
"It shows what a community is able to achieve. Lifeline has a rich profile and relationship with the local community now within Ballarat.
"We enjoy great support with various businesses around the place and we have volunteers that have been committed to the program for many years."
One has been a volunteer on the phones for 20 years.
"This is a story that emerged out of a simple seed that has grown into a program where Lifeline is now a service that everyone in the community knows about.
"They know that if they find themselves in crisis or in that desperate hour there is a voice on the end of the phone that they can trust, be comforted by and also get some good strategies to keep them safe."
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