People sometimes ask what I do these days. Here is a snapshot.
Today, I will be one of 12 Samaritan volunteers from the Brighton, Hove and District branch at TransPride. This is a community event for people from the trans community to come together and be themselves in a safe, supportive space. Samaritans know it can be an alienating and difficult experience for some people just to be who they are. We are there to listen, but also to talk about what we do, in case anyone is interested in volunteering with us. I am really looking forward to it.
On Monday, 24th July 2017, Samaritans will be at railway stations across the country encouraging people to listen to one another and to know they are not alone. Volunteers from our branch will be on Brighton, Hove and Haywards Heath Stations from 7 – 9 in the morning and 5 – 7 in the evening, handing out leaflets, talking to commuters but most of all, listening. This national series of events is part of the ongoing partnership between Samaritans and the rail industry. Next time you travel by train, if you turn over your ticket you might see one of our messages. Please also look out for our posters on every station. As they say, we are in your corner.
On 6th August, we will be on the road again, this time at Brighton Pride, a massive event celebrating all things LGBT. We will have a well-staffed stall to publicise what we do. And because we also know that supposedly joyous occasions can be unbearable for those who are feeling lonely or desperate, we will be there as well for those who need us.
And I am back on my bike on Sunday 30th July 2017 raising money for Samaritans. You can read more about it here, including how to donate. No pressure, though – we all do what we can.
I first learned about Samaritans aged 11 via an article in Readers Digest. I then read Monica Dickens’ novel The Listeners, based on her experiences of being a Samaritan volunteer in London soon after the charity started 64 years ago. Later, I read the collected short stories Is there Anyone There? edited by Monica Dickens and Rosemary Sutcliffe. And I called Samaritans once or twice, from a red telephone box like the one on the cover.
In my early twenties, I trained to be a Samaritan myself, and volunteered for a couple of years. I loved it. But I was economical with the truth about my own issues. While going through a particularly bad patch, I found I didn’t have enough to give. I should have told a senor Samaritan and taken time out. But instead I just left. I have felt bad about this ever since.
I think I always knew I would go back. But not that it would take quite so long. As I pedalled for 8 hours through Ride London 100 in 2015, raising money for Samaritans, I knew that the time had come. In January 2016, I booked myself into an information event at my local branch. And with support from amazing trainers and fellow trainees, I completed initial training, mentoring and probation and became a listening volunteer again.
What has changed in 38 years? More importantly, what remains?
New technology, of course. Emails and text calls, booking shifts and online recording. But still nothing beats listening to someone by phone or face-to-face. Nor being supported by a fellow Samaritan who somehow notices you’re having a tough call and offers you time to reflect. The equality between volunteers, new and experienced, lies at the heart of what we do. I’m so glad that hasn’t changed.
We had policies back in the day, but not like now. Over-reliance on them can have unintended consequences, stealing time, making people over-cautious and discouraging independent thinking. The policies we are asked to follow are designed to maintain high standards and keep everyone safe. And if they need to be changed, it is up to us to say why and how.
Training is more thorough nowadays – in 1978 selection and training happened over a weekend. But the focus on being there for distressed people hasn’t changed at all.
Once more, I find I get more than I give by being a Samaritan. I love the stillness and focus of the Ops Room. I am inspired by the courage of our callers and the humanity of my fellow Sams. It is lovely to be back.
It is true that not everyone has the capacity to be a Samaritan. You have to be able to set aside judgement and the humility to learn how to listen really carefully. But I truly believe that many more people could do it than probably realise. All it really takes is genuine love for other humans.
If you are interested in volunteering with us, either as a listener or a support volunteer, please take a look at this. We would be so pleased to hear from you.