June 16, 2010
The phone rings, and Max Wilson answers it.
One wouldn’t expect such a simple task to make a profound impact on either the caller or the responder. However, at the Youth Services of Southern Wisconsin Briar Patch, phone calls are critical.
Wilson, a member of the men’s soccer team at the University of Wisconsin from 2006-09, was honored with the W Club’s Community Service Award for men’s soccer this year. He has spent time volunteering with the Briar Patch organization since October 2008.
“Basically it’s a youth crisis hotline,” Wilson explained. “I answer calls and provide resources for at-risk youth in our community. People that call in can range from police officers to social workers and guidance counselors to concerned parents. It can be anybody that calls in.
“Ideally, what our organization does is not only provide resources but if the situation needs it, to get people to come in for face-to-face counseling. My role in that would be primarily to work with another volunteer counselor to get an at-risk youth to come in and talk about the crisis they are dealing with, constructively address it and provide resources for them.”
Wilson, a May 2010 UW graduate who studied genetics, became involved with the Briar Patch organization when he was looking for some real-world experience to complement his studies.
“Initially, I was kind of looking for some advocacy experience that was related to what I want to do,” Wilson said. “I’m going to be going to grad school for genetic counseling in the fall, and so I needed some kind of experience to see if that was really what I wanted to do.”
It did not take long for Wilson to realize the impact his volunteer service could have on the youth in the community. However, some challenges also accompanied the position.
“There was the realization that you can’t solve everyone’s problems,” Wilson said. “A lot of people will come in who have already seen eight or nine different counselors and they’ve tried all of the resources that you can provide for them.
“That was really frustrating, but as you learn more what your role is, you make sure that the people have a support system. A lot of times, your role becomes more of a grief counselor, rather than someone who can magically solve everyone’s problem when they come in for an hour and a half.”
Despite not being able to solve everyone’s problems, the influence that Wilson and the other volunteers have on the community is immense. Wilson also feels that his volunteer experience enhanced his educational and athletic experiences at UW.
“There are only so many things you can learn from your academic and athletic experiences, so I think it’s important to find another enriching activity,” Wilson said. “I would not have experienced anything like this sitting in class or playing soccer.”
Briar Patch requires volunteers to complete a training program before they begin their service. Wilson underwent a rigorous 50-hour training program to prepare him for the issues he would face as a volunteer, including drug and alcohol abuse, gang participation, sexual promiscuity, suicide and depression, and grief counseling.
Dealing with so many complex issues would seem to create a stressful, demanding environment. However, Wilson has contributed close to 300 hours of service to the organization, including weekly shifts during the soccer season.
“You try to approach each situation and hear the story of what’s going on with that person,” Wilson said. “We are always required to consult with a staff supervisor there that is there full time. They are always very helpful with giving us advice and providing resources that we can offer the callers. I definitely would not have had this opportunity anywhere else.”