TUCKED away in the heart of Darlington, The Centre is a lifeline for hundreds of women who have been victims of rape or sexual abuse.

Last year, volunteer counsellors answered 700 calls on the helpline and spent 170 hours supporting women face-to-face.

Counsellor and administrator Lynne Hinde said these figures have gone up significantly this year, indicating that more people than ever are finding the courage to use the free service.

"Women talk to us about all kinds of things and it is all about making them as comfortable as possible. We only ask them to tell their story once and we never take notes," she said.

The Centre will then support these women for as long as they feel necessary, keeping only a name and contact number and promising complete confidentiality.

Many clients come as adult survivors of child sex abuse and are able to talk about their experiences and how they have impacted on their lives without being judged.

"Whereas each woman's experience is unique, there are commonalities around feelings of a deep hurt and of having something taken from them that they haven't agreed to," said Ms Hinde. "They also can lack self-esteem and self-confidence and believe that it was somehow their fault, which of course it was not."

The Centre, and its nine volunteer counsellors, also works with victims of rape and sexual abuse in adulthood. In these cases, counselling can take a different path, with victims feeling damaged and unclean, said Ms Hinde.

The Centre works closely with other agencies in Darlington and is a member of the Domestic Violence Advice Circle, launched in September.

The service, formerly known as The Rape and Sexual Abuse Counselling Centre, has been available in Darlington for 12 years and is used by women from across the borough and also from County Durham.

For the past four years, it has been funded by the Lottery, which has enabled it to move into new premises, which have been refurbished to provide a tranquil and safe environment.

Councillors are all female and range in age from 27 to 59. They undergo a ten-week training programme before agreeing to dedicate at least three hours a week to The Centre.

Anyone interested in finding out more about volunteering can take part in a workshop on Saturday, October 23, running from 10am until 4pm. For more information, call (01325) 354119.

Anyone wanting to use the helpline should call (01325) 369933.