Spotlight: UI grad deals with others’ crises

BY KATIE HEINE | MARCH 24, 2011 7:20 AM

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John Shean is somewhat compulsive about having his cell phone with him at all times. But it’s not so he can surf the web or send text messages.

Rather, the 27-year-old said he likes to be available to those in need.

Shean is the crisis-intervention coordinator at the Crisis Center in Iowa City. And it’s his job to ensure the 24/7 crisis line is always answered.

“We don’t define crisis, our clients do,” said Shean, a lanky man with a bit of scruff on his jaw. He said a crisis to one person might be completely irrelevant to someone else.

Though answering the 24/7 crisis line can be overwhelming, communicating with others has been natural for Shean.

As a volunteer four years ago, he stood out to those who have worked at the center for many years.
Keri Neblett, the Crisis Center community-intervention coordinator, trained Shean and named a number of instances in which he received intense suicide calls.

“He handled them beautifully,” she said. “I was always impressed with his decisions.”

Around 5 percent of the Crisis Center’s calls are suicide-related. But because of the emotional state of the client, they are time-sensitive calls, said Shean, who focuses on what they’re saying.

“Sometimes they just want their emotions validated,” the Cedar Rapids native said.

The concept of change has always intrigued Shean. Although he said he knows change can be difficult, he said he wants people to see what the future can hold.

“When the situation feels hopeless, I try to bring a hopeful outlook,” Shean said.

On top of scheduling nearly 90 volunteers to handle the crisis line, the University of Iowa graduate trains the volunteers how to counsel clients in crisis. Three times a year, Shean holds a vigorous 50-hour training session in which volunteers learn active listening skills.

Sarah Benson Witry, the food director at the Crisis Center, used to be a crisis volunteer and helped train Shean.

“I knew early on he was going to be good at this,” she said. “He has this willingness to help no matter what,” she said.

Steve Hirst, 61, who has volunteered at the Crisis Center for the past 18 years, got to know Shean.

“He’s very dedicated and puts in a lot of hours,” said Hirst, who volunteers twice a week.

Shean makes a point to get to know all of the volunteers and offers them his assistance as he does to callers, Hirst said.

About a year ago, a few volunteers made a sign for Shean’s office door that read, “Crisis Cave.” It was meant to be a spoof on Batman’s bat cave because Shean “swoops in” to the call center on a regular basis to ensure everything is running smoothly.

Crisis is short-lived for the most part, Shean said. He said he does what he can to help clients realize that there is still hope.

“The optimist in me keeps coming back to hope,” he said.

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