Women on the frontline: volunteer counselor helps essential workers

Vanessa Baker is a volunteer counselor with Empower Work, a a non-profit organization that provides free mental health services via text to workers across the country, many of whom are working low wage jobs that are considered essential.

Video Transcript


VANESSA BAKER: Since the pandemic began, folks are processing about, what does this mean for my family? When is this going to be over? Might I get sick out on the street or at work? Maybe they're being furloughed. They don't know if they can successfully find another job in this work environment. Or their bosses maybe aren't taking seriously the kind of health measures that most of us are being asked to take.


My name is Vanessa Baker. I'm in San Francisco and I am a peer counselor, which is a volunteer role with Empower Work. Empower Work is a free text line and web chat service for anyone with a work issue.

Since the pandemic began, what I've seen is that people are just feeling a huge sense of overwhelm. There's just so much more pressure and more weight to the existing situations that people are experiencing. I feel like the volume has just been turned up for a lot of folks on the issues that they're facing. And of course, there are some new issues which come about because of just the economic strength and the new health concerns.

We have folks who've been furloughed or laid off, who are panicking about, what do I do next and how do I do it? We have folks who are concerned about their health as they are frontline workers and whether or not their employers are taking the health concerns seriously. So what I've been doing is volunteering my time on a couple shifts during the week to really listen to folks about whatever is most pressing for them, and help them work through their feelings about it, and come to hopefully some solutions and a feeling of empowerment.

Just signing in here to Empower Work for the evening. It is around 6:00. And this is my little desk spot. It is our desk/bedroom. And I like to look out the window right here. I like to be able to have my cat on my lap.

I am not in any way licensed counselor. I don't have a background in anything like that. I actually am a fundraiser by trade. But it's really new to be doing coaching and kind of helping people through some really tough situations.

Every time I get a new text message, I'll get a little ding. And I'll be able to say, what brings you in today?

What I am doing in terms of coaching is first listening really deeply and letting folks know that they're not alone. This is a really overwhelming time. And it's normal.

Sometimes it's kind of fast and furious pace, and sometimes it's a little bit slower. Usually this time of evening there is somebody texting in for support. I would say the busiest other time is probably morning.

The Empower Work model is really based on coaching people, which means listening and validating their emotions. Where are they at? What's most difficult for them? Then you're helping them identify possible paths to get to that ideal outcome.

I am so grateful to be part of Empower Work at this particular time and feeling like I can be useful, I can be of service, even though I'm not out on the front line literally selling groceries or working as a nurse. This is what I can do. And I can do it well. I can do it from my home. And I can really make a difference for other people.