By TIM STOVER/Montana State News

The mission of the Montana State University VOICE center is simple: “(The) VOICE Center is committed to the belief that all people have the right to live free from violence and the fear of violence.”

While their message is simple, their abilities and resources go far beyond what would be expected.

They offer a variety of services, from a confidential support line, to counseling, support groups, and in general, someone to talk to.

The VOICE Center is staffed by peer advocates who have been “trained to provide information, crisis intervention, and support services to anyone affected by sexual assault, relationship violence, and stalking.”

Peer advocates go through rigorous training across the spectrum of support.

According to Campus Suicide Prevention VA, “Peer helper programs have been adopted on college campuses to reduce risk for substance abuse, eating disorders, relational abuse and, more recently, emotional distress and suicide.”

With that in mind, Montana State University own volunteer program does just that.

A main concern for the Voice Center is anonymity. According to their website, “No one outside the VOICE Center will have access to information about your communications with the VOICE Center without your consent. …”

While the VOICE Center is often manned by student volunteers, known as Peer Advocates, they are trained for integrity and reliability. The peer advocates go through rigorous workshops and continuous training.

This training focuses on skills including but not limited to “crisis counseling, peer counseling, and advocacy.”

Training for the Peer Advocates is ongoing and constant. While the majority of the training, education and programming come at the beginning for student volunteers, their development continues throughout their one year commitment to the program.

One peer advocate, Maddie Sholar said, “After the 40 hours, we were shadow advocates for the fall semester, volunteering one hour a week in the office. Then, to take crisis-line shifts, I did another hour of training.”

The year-long commitment for student volunteers helps to ensure the effectiveness and preparedness of the individuals as well as the entire program itself.

According to Advocates for Youth, “… peer programs can have statistically significant effects on attitudes, norms, knowledge, behaviors, and health and achievement outcomes.”

Sholar said “I definitely think so. I haven’t had many clients, but the ones I have had have been very appreciative that someone is there to listen to their story and believe them.”

Even outside the VOICE Center the training can have an impact. Sholar said “I feel very honored to be an advocate. Even outside of the VOICE Center, I have been able to help friends and provide resources.”

According to Advocates for Youth, the effectiveness of peer programs is backed by 20 years of evidence to support their necessity on college campuses across the country.
– edited by Bay Stephens

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