I could have sworn it was in Depiro Street.
Admittedly working from the memory of a quick email exchange, I had returned to my old hometown in Sliema to interview the folks behind Kellimni.com – a support service for young people taking full advantage of the digital domain – only to lose my way.
To add annoyance to stupidity, it was a hot day, and I was still reeling from Lovin Malta’s One Million Views celebration on the previous night… so winding my way back to the correct address – in Rudolph Street, just up the road from the Anglican Church – wasn’t exactly the most fun thing to do at that particular point in time.
Luckily, however, Kellimni’s James Buhagiar was just a phone call away, and after a reprimanding (but friendly) chuckle, pointed me to the right direction.
"And as I would soon find out, this casual but welcoming attitude is what’s at the core of Kellimni’s strength as an initiative."
Greeting me on arrival along with his colleage Jeannine Vassallo, James made sure my disheveled, sweaty self was given enough water to feel human again. And as I would soon find out, this casual but welcoming attitude is what’s at the core of Kellimni’s strength as an initiative.
The small office – in which we were joined by a duo of young Red Cross volunteers, and which is a ramshackle but charming collection of Kellimni’s bright-coloured promotional material and poster art – gives the impression of a space in which work gets done with concentration and diligence, but mainly compassion.
However, Kellimni (‘talk to me’) is less about physical space than it is about the virtual dimension – and in fact, this is the key to its ongoing success among its target demographic: that is, those aged between 13 and 30 years old.
“Thing is, this is sometimes a controversial issue among some of the people and entities we worked with. Because our main point of reference is online, you’d have people railing against the ‘evils’ of the internet. Or saying that using an online or SMS-based platform will make young people ‘dependent’ on the technology,” James tells me.
“But at the end of the day, the internet is just a tool. And we’re determined to use it to pass on the right messages…”
"We found out that Maltese people, of all ages, still appeared to be reluctant to open up about their problems. But then, the internet appeared, and a whole generation started becoming more and more comfortable with expressing themselves."
Welcoming and calm, with a politely cut beard that could easily become bushier (and trendier) if he’s not too careful, James gives off a relaxed air, and in a different context could easily pass for a reformed hippie. Instead, I get the impression that these qualities hold him in good stead when handling the reins of Kellimni, which encourages youths to come forward with their problems without fear of judgement or social stigma.
Both Jeannine and James are keen to point out that, however, Kellimni’s main remit is not counselling, but support. This means that anyone who approaches them with a personal or social problem will find a willing ear, though the service will then recommend other, more specialized, services in the case of severe or deep-rooted problems.
“We don’t even do referrals,” James says, “because the way it works is this: we will listen to what our clients have to say. We will let them share their problems with us, and ask follow-up questions along the way. Then, should they find themselves needing more support, we then recommend specific agencies or services that could help with whatever problem they’re having – but we don’t do direct referrals.”
Kellimni offers three options to those wanting to reach out. The site originally started out with an email service – which is still operational – as well as an online forum (which has since been discontinued). Clients can also get in touch with Kellimni’s operators through a live chat – open every day except Sunday from 7pm to 11pm – and the service has also just launched a SmartMessaging app.
“The thing is that we’re fully aware that some of our clients – or prospective clients – may be living on the poverty line, and might not have access to even a rudimentary laptop with an internet connection. But they may just be able to get their hands on a phone, and you don’t even need a sim card to use our app,” James says.
"Imagine somebody is telling you their story and their problems – which can sometimes get pretty intense – until suddenly, they simply decide to leave. This can be pretty hard to deal with…"
Another crucial element of the Kellimni approach is that all clients can choose to remain anonymous, which ensures they are kept fully at ease when engaging with the service. But James admits that this can become psychologically taxing for the operator – and that it’s perhaps one of the greatest challenges their operators – both the professional social workers and counsellors in their stable, as well as the volunteers – have to come to terms with.
“The client can choose to become anonymous, or just interrupt the chat at any time. So imagine somebody is telling you their story and their problems – which can sometimes get pretty intense – until suddenly, they simply decide to leave. This can be pretty hard to deal with…”
And what have been some of the most consistent problems that the Kellimni folk have dealt with over the past years, or even months? As it happens, they acknowledge that “trends” do exist.
“For example, up until the last year or so, self-harming was pretty… shall we say, hot. This was considered to be something relatively new to Malta, so it became something of a novelty even for us. Of course, the media amplified things too, and then you had all these teenage pop stars talking about it then it’s bound to have an effect… you’ll also get copycats, and so on,” James says.
There are also more persistent – or shall we say, ‘universal’ – concerns too. Issues related to loneliness and social anxiety are, understandably, recurring problems that Kellimni’s clients bring up. “Basically, anything to do with self-esteem,” James says.
But the fact remains that the service is being used, and at an exponentially increasing rate. And according to James, they owe this as much to the medium as the message.
“When the service first became available, we found out that Maltese people, of all ages, still appeared to be reluctant to open up about their problems. But then, the internet appeared, and a whole generation started becoming more and more comfortable with expressing themselves. This is what we wanted to build on,” James says.
Kellimni also keeps active in the ‘offline’ world – with the aforementioned Red Cross volunteers helping to spread the word in schools and during other events (“We found that stickers work really well,” James confesses).
Another of the volunteers helps out with the online dimension, ensuring that Kellimni are active and visible on social media – a crucial lifeline for a service of its kind.
“Being younger, the volunteers know how to reach out to our audience. In fact, at the beginning I used to try my hand at designing some graphics and images for Facebook. I thought they were good, but then I found out that actually, they’re really shit,” James says, and lets out the most disarming laugh you can think of.
Log on to Kellimni.com to find out all about their services. The project is funded through the Voluntary Organisations Project Scheme managed by the Ministry for Social Dialogue, Consumer Affairs and Civil Liberties.