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More volunteers and funding are needed by the Samaritans branch in Bury St Edmunds

They listen. For as long as the caller needs to talk they listen … a crucial connection with another person at the time someone in desperation needs it most. It can be a life saver.

Across the country Samaritans volunteers man phone lines, or in some cases respond to emails, web contacts, and even letters, every hour of every day of every year.

In Bury St Edmunds, around 100 people are among almost 20,000 volunteers answering more than five million calls a year, which could be from anywhere in the UK or Ireland. And there is always a need for more to join them.

Anna Berridge, director of Bury St Edmunds and West Suffolk Samaritans
Anna Berridge, director of Bury St Edmunds and West Suffolk Samaritans

Anna Berridge, who before she retired was head of Risby Primary School, took on the role of director of Bury St Edmunds and West Suffolk Samaritans in March after being nominated for the job by colleagues.

“Nationally, every 10 seconds Samaritans respond to a call for help. The phone rings all the time. It is never quiet. If you put the phone down it will ring again immediately,” she said.

“In April our branch did 491 hours on the phone and answered 1,624 calls. In a year we would take around 20,000.

Volunteers Di Allum, left, and Caroline Lewis read up on the branch’s history
Volunteers Di Allum, left, and Caroline Lewis read up on the branch’s history

“The key qualities for a listening volunteer are empathy and the ability to be non-judgmental,” says Anna.

“We give people time, undivided attention and empathy. Exploring feelings alleviates distress and helps people to reach a better understanding of their situation, and the options open to them.

“We believe that people have the right to find their own solution and that telling them what to do takes responsibility away from them.

“We’re here day or night for anyone who’s struggling to cope, who needs someone to listen without judgement or pressure.”

Anna Berridge pictured wth Malcolm Unwin, vice-director, and Peter Rogerson, deputy director Pictures by: Mecha Morton
Anna Berridge pictured wth Malcolm Unwin, vice-director, and Peter Rogerson, deputy director Pictures by: Mecha Morton

With the caller’s consent they are able to pass on information to other agencies that could help, and their safeguarding policy allows action to be taken if a child or vulnerable adult is at risk of harm.

Like everyone else in the branch the director’s job is voluntary. The only person who is paid is the cleaner.

“My mother was a Samaritan, and that was part of the reason I became one,” says Anna, who has been a listening volunteer for five years.

She is supported by seven deputy directors. All positions last three years.

Most of those who work at Bury are listening volunteers, and some have supporting roles like admin, fund-raising, or IT. Some do both. “Support volunteers are crucial to us,” says Anna.

“Every year we run three training cycles. People can apply directly to us by filling in a form, or online at samaritans.org.

“Interviews follow rules set by the national charity and are done by experienced listening volunteers, who also deliver the training. I think that’s the strength of it, being trained by people who are at the chalk face,” she says.

Training is spread over seven weeks, with a face-to-face evening session plus a digital module every week.

“For listening volunteers it’s very intensive training. A lot of it is through role play, learning skills, and practising.

“There is a lot to learn, and learning to listen actively is not as easy as you might think. Silence is a crucial part of listening. Next time you are with friends see how people listen to each other – they chip in with their own comments.

“That’s acceptable in conversation but not if you are listening to people in distress who need to get things off their chest. We give undivided attention and empathy.

“Sometimes you can’t talk to your nearest and dearest in the way you can to a complete stranger. We validate what they’re feeling, whatever that’s about.

“We have volunteers in their 80s and in their early 20s, and from all walks of life. They come from a wide area including Sudbury, Needham Market, Mildenhall and Diss.”

Volunteers can choose to work wherever suits them. There are other branches in Ipswich, Cambridge, Lowestoft, and Norwich and new applicants are always welcome.

“People stop for various reasons, they get older, or their lives change, or they move. So we need new volunteers coming in all the time,” says Anna. “Generally the younger people who are working do evenings and weekends.”

Shifts at Bury last four hours with at least two people on duty, and three at night.

Once trained, each listener is teamed with an experienced mentor. Anna’s mentor was – and still is – Di Allum, who has volunteered at Bury for 31 years.

She joined after working with homeless people opened her eyes to the vital work Samaritans were doing, and is a past branch director and chairman. “You get more out of it than you put in,” she says.

There is no escaping the fact some calls are difficult and distressing, and Di praises the strong support network that runs right through the organisation.

“If you had a particularly traumatic call you would talk it through before you go home. And all the shifts are led by a leader who is at home, so we can phone them. We all look after each other.”

Bury Samaritans is a self-funding charity, affiliated to the national body which was founded 70 years ago.

It currently costs just over £100 a day to run the Bury office. “The rise in the cost of living is affecting us as it is everyone else,” says Anna. “We are enormously grateful for the help we get but we need more money to keep our phones ringing.

“We are always looking for opportunities to engage with the community and hopefully it can work both ways.”

Caroline Lewis became a listening volunteer just over a year ago, and has just raised £5,000 for their funds by running her first London Marathon.

“I’m very lucky in that I come from a very supportive family, but I realise not everybody has that, and I think it’s very important that people have someone to talk to when they are going through difficult times,” said Caroline, who is studying to be a counsellor.

The branch, which marked its 50th anniversary last year, also trains offenders at Highpoint Prison to become face to face listeners for other prisoners. Currently there are 12, and the aim is to have more than twice that number.

“They give confidential emotional support to their peers who are struggling to cope or feeling suicidal. Our volunteers who do their training find it very satisfying,” said Anna.

Only on the rarest occasions do Samaritans know the outcome of the calls they take, but recently a grateful caller contacted the central office to say a volunteer at Bury had saved their life.

To volunteer go to samaritans.org. The Samaritans national helpline number is 116 123.