Our Volunteering Development Worker, Steve Hendry, recently visited the Reading branch of the Samaritans on Cholmeley Road to talk to volunteers Karen and Dave about their experiences of volunteering.
How did you get involved in volunteering?
Karen – I had wanted to volunteer for the Samaritans for probably twenty years, but didn’t find time in my life until about five years ago when I went part time at work, and thought ‘ooh, I’ve got all this free time, I could do some volunteering’. I liked the idea that I would be getting something out of it myself as well as putting something back into the community.
Dave – It’s probably twenty something years or so for me to get here as well, being aware of the Samaritans and finding the time. I was at that point where I had enough time and felt I was composed enough as an individual, and went to an information evening. One of the things I think back on now, a reason I wanted to persevere with and become a Samaritan was the policy around self-determination. We respect the individual’s right to choose, whatever that choice might be, and that was the point I went ‘yeah, that really resonates with me’ we’re not there to advise people.
“We’re not there to give people solutions which are impractical; we are there to respect what that person wants”
Combine that with the confidentiality policy that the Samaritans have, that’s a very powerful listening space we can give to people that can be in some very dark places.
Karen – I had some counselling in the past, and I saw for myself how powerful it was to have been not told the solutions or even mentioned the solutions, but by developing and talking about things myself, to have got to the point where I was looking up my own solutions and finding what the best thing was for me to do. The power of that stayed with me, and that’s what I want to offer to people when I volunteer.
What does the volunteering involve?
Karen – I’m a listening volunteer, and I’ve been doing that for about five years, and for the last two and a half years I’ve been the training deputy director, so I’m responsible for coordinating and organising the training for people joining the branch. It’s intensive, but spread over a long enough period that people get a chance to think about it, so it’s not a week of training and then you’re a Samaritan at the end of it; it’s a morning here, an afternoon there, an evening here. Ten sessions spread over ten weeks that give people the basic skills to learn to be a Samaritan.
They then are hopefully at a reasonable standard that we would trust them on the phones with some of our vulnerable callers, and at first they’ll be mentored by a trained and experienced Samaritan. They will initially listen to their mentor taking calls and listen in to those, and then they will be taking calls themselves and their mentor listening in and giving them some feedback at the end of each call, or even possibly during the call as it goes through; so a bit more hand holding, if you like. That will go on for another eight to ten weeks, probably one session a week, and after that they will start doing something called Samaritans Initial Training Step 2 ,which is four modules over a period of six months, and that’s designed to support people who’ve already taken some calls and got some experience, what sort of calls they’ve been taking and how have they been affected by them, and how can they improve their skills.
Dave – I’m also a listening volunteer. I’ve been involved with the Samaritans for just over two years. The other activities I take part in, I support the training team, because one of the things that we work with is to have a realistic take on the sort of calls that volunteers will have to take. We want people to understand the sort of experience they’re going to have so they’ll have a trainer listening to them, I’ll be a caller, and the person being trained will act as if it’s a real call, giving them experience and understanding of what will happen when they’re picking up phones for real, and then, you know, both of us can give them feedback on how it went.
I do some work around the selection activities, so prior to the training, we’ll have an information evening where people come along for a couple of hours just to learn a little bit more about what Samaritans are about. Then the information, the selection day is five or six hours with a number of people who’ve had the information evening; they get involved in a couple of group exercises, there’ll be further dialogue, they’ll see what a call looks like with a couple of volunteers who’ll take them through it, and there’ll be an interview just to ask the same sort of questions we’re asking here; you know, ‘why are you interested in being a Samaritan?
What difference do you make to those you are helping?
Dave – I think one of the things is that it’s space for someone to say things that may be only going on in their head, they’ve never spoken to anyone else about it, and knowing that what they’re saying has got to be treated in a confidential manner. They’re not going to be judged on what they talk about and that at any time of day, they can pick up the phone and speak to a Samaritan on the free call number.
They might be bothered about something at 4 o’clock in the morning; the only other person they’ve ever spoken to is essentially themselves; just a chance to say things out aloud and then listen to themselves can actually get some people going ‘I can understand’. So it’s that if they’ve got no one else they can talk to in life, there is that chance to just explore what’s going on in their head without worrying they’re going to put that burden upon a friend or a sibling or a parent; they can talk to someone else, and then if that’s the precursor to then having that conversation with that other person, they can do that.
One of the things we do have is wanting to reduce the number of people take their life. Samaritans is a place where people can talk about those feelings, and that’s a very powerful thing to go ‘yeah, I can talk about the darkest thing in life’ which is still, you know, it happens a lot but it’s still I think seen as a subject you don’t want to talk about.
Karen – It’s very taboo still, isn’t it?
Dave – Yes, and, you know, suicide is the no.1 killer of men under age 50. Now the time and resources that we put into dealing with lots of other things which are the causes of death in men and women under age 50 is considerable, but this is one that we don’t, I think, put the necessary time and effort into, so if we at the Samaritans can be part of making sure that if anyone’s feeling like that, they can talk about it rather than get to the point where actually they’re taking their life simply because they cannot talk about it and it all gets too much for them.
Karen – ‘Emotional validation’ I think is very important; that who you are as a person is validated by someone just listening and accepting that the emotions that you experience as a result of particular things that have happened in your life or who you are as a person. And there’s precious few places where you find people who will listen and not argue with the emotions you’re having; ‘what, you feel angry? That’s a stupid thing to think. You know, why aren’t you feeling…? you should be pleased. I’d be pleased if that was me. You’ve got so much to be grateful for, why aren’t you happy?’ Those kind of comments that you hear people making in everyday conversation all the time, you know, which is invalidation of people.
What do you get out of it?
Dave – It is that ongoing partnership, what I get is a volunteering activity which I find rewarding. Given the sort of conversations we’re having it might seem an odd term to use, but rewarding from the sense of there being an emotional reward in being there and having a difficult conversation with someone who at the end of it could be in a better place, or at least has a better understanding of where they are.
I’m working in a very engaging volunteer organisation where one of the key elements we have is the support network, so as a volunteer, I am supported by the people I’m on duty with, I am supported by someone else who’s always on call, I’m supported by any other person who’s been through Reading branch.
“We’re all Samaritans and we support one another, ’cause if we don’t do that, we won’t be in the right personal place to support the people calling us”.
So what I get out of it is that support I can get, but also the ability to support others, and I find it also very rewarding to help with the training, get more people, ’cause I feel I’ve benefited from it, so I encourage more people and I find that rewarding.
Steve – And do you feel a sense of belonging to the Samaritans?
Dave – A few months ago, I was attending a tri-regional conference, so there were three Samaritans regions, which covers about a third of the U.K., all meeting in Bath. There were three hundred-ish Samaritans there. You would look around the room and see a diversity that would be as you would expect, with people of all ages, genders, racial backgrounds. A conglomeration of individuals, and what brought us together is we were all Samaritans, so I could start a conversation with someone I hadn’t met before, but we would be in a very similar place because we’re doing it for the same reason, and they might be older, younger, vote a different way, have their hair in a different style; whatever it is we still have the same purpose for why we do it.
Karen – Going back to the first question; having learnt a new skill, that’s great and continuing to learn different skills, interpersonal skills. My job’s quite techy so it’s nice to have some different outlet.
“I always think it’s a privilege, actually, to be with people we are talking to; very vulnerable people at very vulnerable and difficult points in their life. I consider it a privilege to have shared that moment with somebody, someone possibly making that key critical decision … whether to continue living or not.”
You know, that’s quite a privileged position to be in. I certainly feel that sense of community, and I’ve made a lot of good friends at the branch, like organising social events for the branch. I think probably with myself and Dave, you’ve got two people who have involved themselves quite heavily in the branch; we do other stuff as well as just coming to do our listening shifts; but there are other people who probably still have a good strong sense of being part of a group, but they just turn up and they do their listening shifts, and they share that moment with the colleague that they’re on with at that particular moment in time, and then they go home and perhaps don’t involve themselves in all the other parts of the branch. That’s fine too.
But I also get quite a lot from doing the training, actually standing up and delivering training. I love doing that. I’m in my element doing that, so I really enjoy seeing people come on that journey when they walk in the door and they’re nervous and not quite sure what they’ve let themselves in for, and then they go on this enormous great long journey of ‘can I, can’t I, oh, I thought I could do that, but I can’t’, and learning those new skills and trying to put them together and eventually picking up and gaining speed on that, and putting all the skills together and they come out the other end thinking ‘wow, I didn’t know I could do this, but I can’. That’s quite a buzz from doing that, definitely.
What would you say to someone who was thinking about volunteering?
Dave – I would treat it as a Samaritans call to some extent… I’d ask them what they think they might get out of it. I would certainly encourage them to do it, no matter what it is; this additional activity, something which puts the world a bit more in context when we live in a very work focused way. If that’s the only thing you have in life, that becomes so dominant.
“Volunteering has allowed me to sort of step back a little bit, be a little bit more reflective on life, and just gives me something else that I find a pleasing rewarding activity to get engaged in.”
So whether someone wants to volunteer for Samaritans or volunteer for something else which is close to their heart, I would always support people do it, ’cause I think that’s a really good thing and I’ve got a lot out of it over the last couple of years.
Karen – I think volunteering generally is a rewarding activity. It’s nice to give something back and feel that I don’t have to demand my usual hourly rate for coming and actually doing something that I get something out of as well, and learn new skills. The beauty of Samaritans specifically is that you can do a number of different things; you don’t have to be a listening volunteer, you can be a support volunteer and kind of run our publicity department for us, or clean the fridge, or… you know, there’s a number of different areas you can get involved with so there’s plenty of opportunity.
Inspired? Take a look at this opportunity to get involved with the Samaritans:
Not quite what you are looking for? See many more opportunities at our www.rgneeds.me site