Hot lines spring up around the US for latchkey children. New phone services let youngsters who are home alone reach out and touch someone

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

`I JUST got sparked,'' says Brenda Geron, a 37-year-old social worker in Worcester, Mass., when she heard about Phone-Friend, a hot line in Philadelphia for latchkey children. ``I thought, `The kids're gonna love it. Something of their own. Somebody to talk to when Mom's working.'''

And so Ms. Geron started KidsLine, adding the city of Worcester to the network of hot lines that have sprung up across the country for the approximately 15 million elementary school-aged children who are home alone after school, responsible for their own care.

The exuberant mother of three got funding from the Hoche-Scofield Foundation, and the Main South Neighborhood Center became KidsLine's sponsor.

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Then Geron and trained volunteers made presentations at each of Worcester's 42 elementary schools. And they plastered posters, designed by her 12-year-old son, Joshua, around the city.

The response was immediate.

About 100 calls a week came in from youngsters feeling lonely, scared, or bored.

And ``although to a kid everything can seem like a crisis, even running out of peanut butter,'' says Geron, KidsLine volunteers have fielded only three real crisis calls since the program began a year and a half ago.

``Friendly listeners,'' as she calls KidsLine's volunteers, are there ``to reinforce what Mom or Dad would do. To listen, walk them through their fears, tell jokes,'' she explains, ``but not to replace family procedure.''

Geron estimates that two-thirds of Worcester's five- to 12-year-old children are latchkey kids, owing to the dramatic rise in working mothers and the lack of affordable child care.

``I wish there had been something like this for my kids,'' she says, who for the last nine years has raised her three boys by herself.

``My oldest son was responsible for the others from 3 p.m. till 6 p.m., while I was working.... I just have to thank God they were all right.

``Luckily, they were able to call me at work - and they did, all day long: `Mom, can I have a sandwich?'''

The alarming rate of teen-age suicides is another good reason to get kids talking about their worries early on, says Geron.

``For a kid to be able to pick up a phone and say to an adult, `I'm scared, I heard a noise,' is an achievement.''

One-third of KidsLine callers are repeaters (some call at the same time every day). They have their favorites - staff members they ask for by name. The staff admits to having favorites, too.

``Like Mikey,'' says Geron. ``We had a ritual. He'd call me, make a snack, put the phone by the TV, then see if I could guess which cartoon was on. I'd scream, `It's Popeye!' and we'd sing the song together.''

Worcester children who have used the hot line have done their own networking, giving the KidsLine number to their friends from other towns.

That's OK with Geron.

``I'm here,'' she says, ``for the kids who need to say to somebody, `Hi! I'm home from school.'''

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