Somebody to Listen : ‘Warm Line’ Lends Bored Kids an Ear

Times Staff Writer

Kids in Irvine can call a special number when they are bored, lonely or even need help with their homework, and parents will be happy to know that the calls won’t hike the phone bill.

The Kid Phone-Warm Line, which celebrates its 1-year anniversary this month, received more than 6,200 calls last year about everything from imagined outer space experiences to new hamsters, coordinator Linda Zuba said.

“I think what children need more that anything else is to be listened to seriously,” she said. Children need to know that their feelings and ideas are important, she said.

Most of the youngsters who dial (714) 756-WARM just want to talk. Others want information or to share their jokes and stories, Zuba said. “We have quite a few regular callers.”


One 8-year-old boy who called this week wanted to know how he could contact the Easter Bunny. “I guess he wanted to get a jump on the rest of the kids,” Zuba said.

Zuba and her volunteer staff, mostly student interns from UC Irvine and Orange Coast College, answer calls from 2 to 6 p.m. each weekday. Volunteers are rigorously screened and go through a 10-hour training program by three psychiatrists, she said. The emphasis of the training is listening, rather than giving advice, Zuba said.

“We’re not advice-oriented at all,” said the 30-year-old coordinator, whose soft voice gives the impression that she’s not much older than her callers. She described what they do as more of an “airing out” process to help children think their problems through and come up with their own solutions.

Kid Phone is called a “warm line,” as opposed to a “hot line,” Zuba said, because volunteers are trained primarily to handle non-emergency, “mellow-to-medium” calls. The rare callers with serious problems are referred to appropriate agencies for help or to their parents or school counselors.

Most calls, Zuba said, are like that of a 9-year-old girl who was bored this week and asked what she should do.

Volunteer Hilary Iha, 21, a UCI senior majoring in social ecology, told her, “I like to write letters.” Seconds later, with a decision made, the caller was eager to get off the line to start her project--a happy drawing she would send to her grandmother.

Just Want to Talk

Wendy Kliewer, a doctoral candidate in UC Irvine’s social ecology program, said 57% of the 3,300 calls she studied were from children bored or just wanting to talk, 18% wanted help with homework, and 10% wanted to discuss problems with peers. Less than 3% of the callers mentioned loneliness or sadness, problems with parents or siblings, or being scared or worried, as reasons for calling, she said. Most callers are 6 to 12 years old.

Connie Underhill, founder of a Yorba Linda-based Phone Friend, which suspended service this summer for repairs and is scheduled to reopen next month, said about 80% of the 1,500 calls a year since 1986 were from children who were just bored or lonely.

“The most drastic emergencies we’d get would be the type where the toilet is running over,” Underhill said. “Most kids just called to say, ‘If you’ve got a minute, I’d just like to tell you what my day was like.’ ”

Since the Newport Beach Sunshine Line has been discontinued, Irvine Kid Phone and the Yorba Linda Phone Friend, which also serves Placentia, are the only free children’s phone programs in Orange County that Underhill and Zuba know of.

While there was no estimate available for the number of “latchkey children” in Orange County, Kliewer said 95% of the callers in her study were at home without adult supervision.

350 Programs

Louise Guerney, a professor at Penn State University and training director of Phone Friend Inc.--the first free children’s phone support program in the United States--estimated that 25% of U.S. children between the ages of 6 and 12 are without adult supervision after school. She said that there are now at least 350 U.S. programs similar to Phone Friend.

“We really needed some services for latchkey kids in our community,” Guerney said. Programs like Phone Friend can provide an alternative to child care because they are inexpensive and open to all children, she said.

“We didn’t try to pretend that it would meet all the child-care needs,” but it helps, she said.

Marilee Cosgrove, who supervises Kid Phone through Irvine’s Child Care Services department, said the programs also give officials information to make decisions concerning children.

“Kids programs keep administrators in touch with kids,” Cosgrove said. “You can’t make decisions about children unless you know what concerns them, what they’re thinking and feeling.”

Clues for Officials

The nature of calls, along callers’ ages and schools, can give officials clues about everything from curriculum at schools to the concerns of children in certain age groups, she said.

Kid Phone operated with $14,000 in private donations for the final 6 months of the last fiscal year, Cosgrove said. She estimated that operating costs for this year would be between $25,000 and $30,000. Most funding will come from grants, fund-raising events and donations, she said.

Mary Ellen Hadley, a member of the Irvine Unified School District board and one of the principal fund-raisers for Kid Phone’s first year, described the service as “another piece of Irvine’s child-care puzzle.”

"(Kid Phone) is like Mrs. Jones who was always home,” Hadley said, describing the sort of block mother whom children once contacted in their parents’ absence. “She didn’t try to take over your family . . . she was just there as a resource.”