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50 years of Lifeline; Help is just a phone call away

Fifty years after Lifeline volunteer counsellors took their first call, the telephones are still running hot. Journey looks back to the beginnings of this remarkable organisation. The first call made to Lifeline was at 5 pm on 16 March 1963, one minute after the telephone lines were opened.

The crisis counselling service was founded by the late theologian, evangelist, and broadcaster Sir Alan Walker, after he took a telephone call from a distressed man who later committed suicide.

Lifeline was two years in the planning, and initially operated out of the Central Methodist Mission in Sydney.

Journey volunteer Judith Finau was a staff member at the Mission, and one of the 150 people who attended the first nine-month training course for telephone counsellors.

She was present at the opening of the first Lifeline Centre in Darlinghurst in Sydney on 16 March 1963.

"I mostly drew the night shift and some weeks I would be on stand-by to fill in for a volunteer who was unable to do their shift," recalls Mrs Finau.

"Not all calls were potential suicides; some callers were just lonely and needed someone to talk to at night, especially in the early hours of the morning.

If there was a potential suicide caller, we aimed to find out where the person was calling from so that we could send out the 'trouble team'.

We tried to keep the caller talking so that our team could reach them in time."

Acknowledging the 50th anniversary of Lifeline, Superintendent of Wesley Mission Rev Dr Keith Garner said that the organisation "grew out of a clear sense of Christian vision".

Speaking at an anniversary function at Government House, Sydney on 13 March, Dr Garner said "Alan Walker had great compassion for the isolated and he believed that through the establishment of Lifeline the mantle of Christianity would cover 'the lonely crowd of the modern city'.

"In 1994 Lifeline transitioned the 24-hour telephone crisis support line to a single national number (13 11 14), and in 2007 introduced national call flow.

The organisation has become synonymous with crisis counselling, suicide prevention, and community support.

There are 44 Lifeline centres in Australia, represented by Lifeline Australia Inc. and Lifeline organisations have been established in 19 countries.

Volunteers remain at the heart of Lifeline, with over 11 000 volunteers registered nationally, half of whom work as telephone counsellors.

Approximately 80 per cent of Lifeline operating costs are funded through retail outlets, book fairs and fundraising activities.

Lifeline services in Queensland are operated by UnitingCare Community.

Services include the Crisis Line, suicide bereavement and prevention, individual and group support, and Community Recovery.

There are over 130 Lifeline shops in Queensland.

For more information visit uccommunity.org.au/lifeline.