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Bury St Edmunds and West Suffolk branch of The Samaritans marks 50 years of providing a lifeline in a time of crisis

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Samaritans. Can I help you? To someone in despair those five words are a lifeline. To so many, without doubt, they have made the difference between life and death.

And it is a call made on average 10,000 times every day in the UK,

The Samaritans was founded in 1953 with the aim of preventing suicides by London vicar Chad Varah, who described himself as ‘a man willing to listen, with a base and an emergency telephone’.

Bury and West Suffolk Samaritans volunteers at a tea party of celebrate the branch's 50th anniversary
Bury and West Suffolk Samaritans volunteers at a tea party of celebrate the branch's 50th anniversary

This year is the 50th anniversary of Bury St Edmunds and West Suffolk branch where almost 90 listening volunteers take turns to man the phones at their town centre base.

The set up was very different when it began. Its first home was a condemned property in Brentgovel Street, Bury, loaned by the local council.

In a booklet marking the branch’s first 30 years, volunteer Anne wrote: “A small, weathered, gentleman of the road was watching with great interest as Brian fixed the Samaritan nameplate to the front door.

“This character was to become not only our first client, but a regular, never-to-be-forgotten one for years.”

At the start it was a local service with a local phone number. Volunteers would also visit clients, and ran an ongoing befriending service.

In 1976 they acquired a tiny terraced house in Well Street. People wanting to talk would regularly call at the centre, which although rickety and cramped was better suited to their needs.

A ‘flying squad’ would go out day or night to the homes of those in need of help.

Councillor Patrick Cheung cuts the Bury Samaritans' 50th anniversary cake
Councillor Patrick Cheung cuts the Bury Samaritans' 50th anniversary cake

The booklet also recalls some lighter moments. Night cover at the centre often meant just one person on duty. Some took their dogs for company.

Volunteer Lesley told of having to deal with a sex call – still an occasional unavoidable hazard of the job.

Not allowed in those days to hang up, she put down the receiver and went to make a coffee. When she returned her dog, hearing a voice on the phone, had begun snuffling and licking it all over ... thus, she said, ‘delivering the first reverse sex call’.

When the building closed in 2000 while a much-needed extension was added, volunteer Karen recalled a new lock had to be put on the door . . . because there had always been someone on site no-one knew where to find key.

In 2015 the branch moved into its current home – a purpose-designed centre off the town’s Northgate Street.

Modern-day safeguarding rules – and Covid – have changed the way they operate. There is still a visitors’ room for face to face meetings, but they have been suspended since the start of the pandemic.

Now there is a national Samaritans number which directs callers to an available volunteer in any of the branches countrywide. The calls are anonymous and cannot be traced.

The service is free. Nationally, they answer well over three million phone calls a year. Around seven people in crisis are dialling their number every minute.

Each year, volunteers at Bury take more than 20,000 calls, and spend over 5,000 hours on the phone.

Ex-journalist Bob Riches joined the Samaritans after taking voluntary redundancy four years ago. He is a listening volunteer, and also – due to his background – the branch’s publicity officer.

Bury Samaritans volunteer Bob Riches demonstrates how he would take a call
Bury Samaritans volunteer Bob Riches demonstrates how he would take a call

No-one would pretend that being a ‘Sam’ is an easy option. The idea that you are constantly taking calls from people on the brink of suicide may be wide of the mark . . . but that said, it happens, and you need to be prepared.

“It can be daunting, and not everybody makes it through,” said Bob. “Training can take up to a year before you’re fully qualified.

“You do six three hour sessions, then are assigned a mentor and listen to them taking calls. Then gradually you start taking calls yourself.

“Every call is different, and yes, it can be traumatic at times. You just don’t know what your next call will be.

“It could be someone in the process of taking their own life or someone with a housing problem.

“We can’t diagnose their medical worries or sort out finances or other problems, but we provide emotional support.

“We don’t offer advice, but try to help them look at their options and can point them towards different organisations that might be better suited to help.

“You are trained to listen in a certain way. A lot of people think they listen but there is a difference between listening and hearing.

“Some people ring us because it’s easier to talk to a stranger than to your friends or family, whose attitude might be ‘pull yourself together’. We empathise with them. You listen and value everything they are saying.

“Everyone that rings has some sort of crisis and you have to try to ask questions so you can understand their predicament. Some are in such a terrible situation it’s almost impossible.

“A vast number of our callers have mental health issues of one kind or another. They may not be receiving much help from the organisations that possibly should help.

“Our callers are in such despair and we are the only outlet, but by talking to us they can alleviate their situation a little.

“With people saying they have taken an overdose you have to stay with them until the line goes silent. You hope they have rung off and dialled 999 for help – but you have no way of knowing what has happened.

“One of the things is not to take calls home with you. We have support systems and talk to each other. There are always two people in the centre and there is always another Samaritan on call to help you after your shift.

“At the moment, Bury branch provides cover between midday and 6am because we don’t have the numbers to do 24/7.

“Shifts are usually three and a half to four hours. We take calls from anywhere in the UK but don’t ask where people are from.

“We’re expected to do one shift a week and a night shift about nine times a year.”

Bob now helps to train others as a mentor. “It’s quite rewarding to see the confidence coming through as they progress,” he said.

The branch carried on through the Covid restrictions, with people doing extra shifts while volunteers in vulnerable groups had to shield.

“Covid made us even more determined to provide our service to people because some were going through a really, really tough spell. They were trapped at home, and often couldn’t even access a doctor,” said Bob.

Bury has about 100 volunteers. Most are listeners, others provide support like fund-raising and admin, and some do both.

Jill Turner is their longest-serving volunteer. She has been with them for 30 years, but remembers being aware of Samaritans since seeing an advert in a bus station as a teenager.

Jill Turner, 30 years a Samaritan and Bury branch's longest serving volunteer
Jill Turner, 30 years a Samaritan and Bury branch's longest serving volunteer

“When I started I was told then the average volunteering life of a Sam was two years, and I thought, I couldn’t do that for two years. It seemed overwhelming. Thirty years later I’m still here.

“It’s nothing like you imagine it will be. When I trained I learned so much,” said Jill, who came to Suffolk with husband Ian in 1969.

“When I joined we were in Well Street. We had the ground floor office, a tiny kitchen, and toilet. There were tight staircases to the upper floors.

“The night duty was 11pm to 9am. But we didn’t get continuous calls then because they were all local. There were two single beds with a phone in between. I used to bring in a pillow and a sleeping bag.

“The clock on Moyse’s Hall Museum was chiming every 15 minutes, so it was really hard to sleep – although my first night duty was with a guy who snored all night.

“When you get a call it’s very rarely just one problem,” said Jill. “They present with one, then as you get a rapport with them they say oh, and . . .”

Looking after each other is a priority for the volunteers. “We have tremendous back up. You wouldn’t go from one very traumatic call straight on to the next one,” Jill said.

One of her hardest experiences as a Samaritan was going out to Soham to help the community after the murders of 10 year-olds Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman.

“We were in the church, where people could come and talk to us. I found that really difficult,” she said.

Every Samaritans branch has to raise its own running costs – in Bury’s case £35,000 a year – and fundraisers work tirelessly to keep the coffers topped up.

They are led by fund-raising chair Joan Pawling, who in 2020 received a High Sheriff’s Award for her voluntary work.

When they moved to the new centre generous companies helped furnish the building.

The branch is headed by a director, currently Eamonn Jones, who serves a three-year term supported by deputy directors, and trustees. Everyone is a volunteer. “No one here is paid except for our cleaner,” said Jill.

Viv Bewley is both a listening and a fund-raising volunteer. She has been a Samaritan for 20 years, and had previously worked for Victim Support where she did a course in bereavement.

She organises all kinds of fund-raising events including cruises with Suffolk-based Fred Olsen Cruise Lines, which donates a percentage of money paid by passengers to the Samaritans. So far they have raised around £15,000.

Theatre trips are another source of funds bringing in thousands of pounds. And a golden anniversary ball is being held in the summer.

Other initiatives include a supporter repairing and selling bikes, and a group selling ‘jams for Sams’. The branch also applies for grants.

Outreach is another important part of their work. It includes training prisoners at Highpoint Prison as ‘listeners’ who are available to talk to other inmates needing help.

Since lockdown ended they have been going out to RAF Honington for its ‘mind, body, and soul’ days.

Samaritans also give talks on their work. “It’s letting people know we are there for them when times are tough,” said Viv.

“Sometimes it’s just the little things that build up. If you can release that and talk it through, it’s amazing the power of someone listening.

“We don’t judge you, it’s your life and your call when you phone us.” she said.

If you are interested in volunteering as a Samaritan, or donating to the Bury branch, go online to www.samaritans.org/branches/bury-st-edmunds/

The branch is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a Golden Ball on Saturday, August 13, at Ashlar House in Bury. For tickets email vivbewley1@gmail.com