'Hotline heroes' serve as fact-checkers, listeners for people seeking help in North Dakota, Minnesota

FirstLink operators have handled over 800 calls related to COVID-19

Jennifer Illich and Francesca Huelsman of FirstLink, a support hotline based in Fargo that covers North Dakota and parts of Minnesota, take calls from people who may need resources for financial, mental and emotional health. Special to The Forum

FARGO — People who have called hotlines during the coronavirus pandemic often ask for answers, but sometimes all they really want is to hear another voice and for the person on the other side to listen to them.

That has become a common theme during this crisis, multiple hotline operators told The Forum.

“I just think it is really important, especially now when we are self-isolating, to have somebody that we can reach out to, connect with and keep our hope and health alive,” said Jennifer Illich, operations director for the Fargo-based support service FirstLink.

FirstLink operators have handled over 800 calls related to COVID-19, and the organization isn’t the only hotline seeing a large volume of callers. About 75 Minnesota Department of Health employees take about 700 calls a day through its coronavirus hotline — and at the peak, they took an average of 1,700 calls each day, according to Rebecca Sechrist, project manager for the health department's public inquiry branch, which oversees the hotline.

In North Dakota, about 30 Health Department operators have answered over 11,500 calls to the coronavirus hotline, said Kim Mertz, healthy and safe communities section chief for the agency. In recent weeks, that's amounted to about 200 calls a day, she said.


The state hotlines provide important information to callers, often fact-checking rumors and misinformation, said Tiffany Knauf, North Dakota health systems and hypertension coordinator who also answers health department hotline calls.

But some residents just want to talk. Operators said they have listened to people talk for minutes at a time, then the caller told them how much they appreciated having an ear.

“They are empathetic,” Mertz said. “They have the biggest hearts. They go above and beyond every single day. They are the ears of the people in this state.”

Greater urgency

FirstLink has been serving Cass County for 50 years and has expanded throughout North Dakota and parts of Minnesota, including Clay County. They serve as a listening and support system, connector for resources and a crisis intervention hotline.

Call volumes are up for FirstLink overall compared to last year, Illich said. People were calling about information on finances, including help with rent and gas money, in the early weeks of the pandemic, she said.

“It seems like the urgency in people is greater, like people are more panicked,” Illich said.

She predicted a rise in suicide calls when The Forum spoke to her in mid-April. As of May 6, the hotline listened to 2,986 calls regarding suicide this year, up 588 from last year to date.

“We are having youth calling with thoughts of suicide,” Illich said in an email, noting many feel isolated.


Sechrist and Knauf both said questions to their agencies have changed over time. They initially started with information about the virus, including symptoms and exposure. Then it evolved to stay-at-home orders and finally testing inquiries, they said.

Some of the hardest questions center around deaths, North Dakota Health hotline operator Alice Musumba said. They tug at her heart, she said.

“You can see yourself in their situation,” she said.

Some people are upset about the situation, Sechrist said. Once they realize someone is listening to them, they tend to ask a question that can be answered, and operators can point them in the right direction, she said.

“A lot of people just want to call and be heard,” Sechrist said.

'Sense of hope'

Retired Major Mickey Hale of the Salvation Army said he has taken calls for the organization’s Emotional and Spiritual Care Hotline from people concerned about their families, job security and depression. Some call because they are lonely.

“Our job, basically, is to just let them talk,” the Rockford, Ill., resident said.

The hotline that launched in mid-April covers 11 states in the Midwest, including Minnesota and North Dakota, Salvation Army Northern Division spokesman Dan Furry said. It’s received about six to eight calls a day, but Furry said he anticipates work will pick up as more people find out about the hotline.


One Sioux Falls, S.D., woman who is 74 called in feeling discouraged. Her husband died about a year ago, and she has no family and no one calls her, Furry said. After calling the hotline, she felt more encouraged, Furry said.

“It’s just a matter of reaching out to people and making sure they are OK,” Hale said, adding the most important part e is making sure people can hear another voice and know things will be better once the crisis is over.

Hale said helping others touches his heart.

“It is a joy to bring them a sense of hope,” he said .


Several operators noted they sometimes feel the emotions of callers. Sechrist said they are at risk of experiencing compassion fatigue, which can make it difficult for those who constantly listen to stories of crisis to care for themselves.

All groups said they have resources to help operators notice emotional and physical exhaustion in themselves, find ways to provide self-care and keep themselves healthy.

“It is taxing, and it is hard,” Sechrist said, but operators are very happy to provide the service.

The North Dakota hotline operators have daily meetings, Musumba noted.


“A good cry once in a while is OK,” she said. “I’m a verbal processor, so I need to talk it out with someone.”

Musumba noted hotline operators are real people, just like the callers with whom they interact. Operators have had friends and family who have contracted the coronavirus or have been laid off, meaning they can empathize from a position of knowing, she said.

“The things that they are calling about are not imaginary things that are out there,” she said. “We’re in this together. We are not the government out there pushing things for them to do. We are fellow citizens who are working with them for what’s best for North Dakota.”

Having facts has helped as well, Knauf said. She said she knows what she can do to help keep herself and others safe. She said she does her best to help and support callers, but she has learned to not internalize those problems.

“It would become incredibly overwhelming emotionally,” she said.

Sechrist said she is proud of her hotline operators. The health department operators are not meant to provide mental health services, but they do a great job at helping those who need emotional support get pointed in the right direction for resources.

Mertz said her operators are humble, but they do endless research to make sure North Dakotans have the facts.

“Our hotline operators have a nickname, and they are called the hotline heroes,” she said. “Each and every one of them are a hero.”


Hotline numbers

FirstLink: For help, call 211 or 701-235-7335. You can also text your zipcode to 898211. For children who need help, they can also text ND4ME to 898211.

FirstLink also answers the National Suicide Hotline at 800-273-8255. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, please call this number.

Salvation Army Emotional and Spiritual Care Hotline: Operators are available at 877-220-4195 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

North Dakota: Call 866-207-2880 between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. Residents also can find more information at .

Minnesota: For health questions, call 651-201-3920 or 800-657-3903. Minnesota also has a school and child care hotline — 651-297-1304 or 1-800-657-3504. Both are open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends. More information can be found at .

April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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