Every night for the last 27 years, teenagers who need to talk have been able to find an understanding ear at Teen Line, a confidential phone hotline staffed by highly trained teenage volunteer listeners.
The calls reflect every manner of teen suffering and angst, from mundane worries about dating and friendships to life-threatening encounters with drugs, suicide, eating disorders and child abuse.
Although the voice at the other end of the phone is always that of a young person, the driving force behind Teen Line is Elaine Leader, a 79-year-old great-grandmother with a British accent and a propensity for hats and oversized costume jewelry.
As the co-founder and executive director of Teen Line, the London-born Leader, who holds a doctorate from the California Institute for Clinical Social Work, knows more about Los Angeles’ teenagers than most. For nearly three decades, Leader has established herself as a tireless champion for Teen Line and the often-voiceless population it serves.
“When I see somebody in pain, I feel like I must reach out to help,” Leader said.
She can recite the suicides of dozens of young people in Los Angeles as if she knew them all. She helps train school counselors and police officers alike in dealing with young people in crisis. She can tell you which drugs are in vogue at which high schools, and why there is an apparent epidemic of young people cutting themselves.
The organization’s youthful army of listeners must complete a rigorous 60-hour training program, and they work under the constant supervision of mental health professionals. But the essence of Teen Line is the unwavering belief that teenagers will talk with each other more honestly and comfortably than they will with adults.
Last year Teen Line’s high school-aged volunteers handled 6,666 phone calls and 1,750 e-mails, for a total of 8,416 teen-to-teen contacts. The Cedars-Sinai-affiliated group’s volunteers made 215 educational presentations to schools and organizations in 2006, reaching some 36,000 young people.
In the early years, and to some extent today, the listeners were predominantly culled from privileged backgrounds and attended high schools on the Westside. Although there are exceptions, those kids have always tended to be the ones with the time — and the reliable means of transportation — to devote so many volunteer hours to the cause.
In addition to its Westside offices, a new Teen Line call center in Reseda, which opened last spring, is likely to increase the diversity of Teen Line’s volunteers, and Leader hopes it will also help the organization provide more specific referrals to callers from the Valley. A third call center in Riverside is also in the works, Leader said.
“We are expanding because teens from all over want to be involved,” Leader said. “They want to be able to take calls.”
In addition to Teen Line, Leader runs a successful private practice in adolescent psychotherapy and group therapy from her Beverlywood home. And many Teen Line volunteers are Leader’s own patients; they say talking to others about their experiences helps them to heal.
Leader is particularly passionate in her advocacy for gay, lesbian and transgender teenagers, whom she will insistently remind you are three to four times more likely to attempt or commit suicide than straight teens.
Alyn Libman was one of them. A 22-year-old transgender man, Libman says he became suicidal because of the harassment and abuse he suffered in middle school and high school.
As a 13-year-old, before Libman told anyone else about his struggles, he called Teen Line. He had seen the brochures in his middle school guidance counselor’s office. “The first time I called I hung up, and the second time I ended up talking to someone for about an hour,” Libman said. “I spoke to someone named Michael. I told him, I think I’m gay, and I’m just afraid to come out. I told him I was contemplating suicide.”
“He just listened. It was very helpful. It was someone I could talk to, and they weren’t judging me,” recalled Libman, now an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. “It was very legitimizing.”
After a failed suicide attempt in ninth grade, Libman met Leader by chance at a conference for gay youth. He told her about having called Teen Line, and she recruited him to speak at outreach programs about gay and lesbian teens.
“It really touched my heart to know that an adult, an older adult, thought the lives of teenagers and youths were important,” Libman said.
“You look at her and you think about this proper British grandmother, and you can’t imagine the kinds of people she helps, and the people whose rights she stands up for,” Libman said. “She’s a very safe person to talk to. You just want to hug her and cry.”
Leader says she’s had gay friends for decades — longer than most people her age have known anyone who was out about being gay. “I was a socialist when I was in high school during the war,” she recalled. “I was always for the underdog, and the gay people were the underdog.”
Having spent her own adolescence during World War II, with the family split between New York and London, Leader says she identifies completely with the unsettled feelings common among teenagers.
Leader attributes her relentless drive to help people to the philanthropic example her father set for her in the years before World War II. “I think some of this comes from my father,” Leader says one evening in the Teen Line call center, in a rare display of personal emotion.
An early Zionist, her father worked behind the scenes from London in the late 1930s to help establish a Jewish state in Palestine. A self-made businessman, he convinced a non-Jewish friend with a big estate outside of London to harbor young Jewish men from Germany and Austria, where they would train for the Hagganah, the underground Army that would eventually win Israel’s independence.
“He took these young men out to this country estate. I was 8 or 9 years old. I remember seeing them marching up and down with broomsticks, training for the Hagganah,” she said. “There were 50 or 60 of them, and he had saved their lives.”