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The "Imaginary Client": Presenting Psychosocial Issues to Volunteers

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In the training of volunteers who provide direct services to clients, it is critical that volunteers have a basic understanding of the psychosocial issues faced by those they will serve. Having this knowledge prepares volunteers for successful short-term interactions, such as delivering a meal to a frail elder, or long-term relationships, such as working with a woman with breast cancer or teaching an adult to read. An understanding of a client's emotional and spiritual issues, medical and treatment issues, legal and financial issues, and family and community issues allows volunteers to feel more confident and less anxious about encountering the difficult circumstances of their clients' lives. Perhaps most importantly, a knowledge of the life situation of another enables empathy and compassion.

This article will explore the use of the "imaginary client," a case statement which is presented early, and referred to throughout the various modules of a training, and will present a module on psychosocial issues that employs this technique. This module is currently in use at Shanti, a human service organization in San Francisco, California, which has trained more than 13,000 volunteers to provide direct services to clients during the past 27 years.