James Jopling: Volunteers who can make a difference

Like all charities, the Samaritans  depend totally on the inspiring work of thousands of volunteers. Picture: Alan Murray
Like all charities, the Samaritans depend totally on the inspiring work of thousands of volunteers. Picture: Alan Murray
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SAVING lives can be heroic, or it can mean simply listening, but all who volunteer are special, writes James Jopling

More than 21 million people volunteer in the UK at least once a year and this contributes an estimated £23.9 billion to our economy. Behind these big numbers is a big contribution. And without that contribution there would be no Samaritans.

A couple of weeks ago, at 3:30am in one of the 19 branches of Samaritans in Scotland, I appreciated that contribution only too well. I spent a nightshift with Margaret and Julie* who were taking calls from right across the country from people who needed to talk. People for whom life had taken an unexpected turn, people who had seen problems build up or people who just couldn’t quite put their finger on what was causing their distress. They all needed a safe space, with someone who was an expert listener.

Margaret had been volunteering with Samaritans for 13 years, Julie for six. After comprehensive training and support they are doing roughly a shift a week and a nightshift once a month. During the day they’ll often be responding to texts, e-mails and calls. But such was the level of demand during this nightshift they could only answer calls. They were barely able to finish one before the next would come through.

It was only by “logging off” the system half way through their shift we were able to share a cup of tea and to catch up. Their reasons for initially volunteering for Samaritans weren’t that remarkable in themselves. But their commitment ever since was. And this extended beyond “just” coming and being there for people who really needed them. They’d both spend time supporting the branch by fundraising, awareness raising, visiting local schools and other organisations keen to hear about Samaritans’ work. All whilst still doing their weekly shifts. Others train prisoners to provide listening support to others in their local prison.

I also learnt how calls aren’t only from those in absolute crisis and considering suicide. Addressing emotional pressures or worries and simply talking about these proved truly valuable too. Actions that could help prevent things from getting more serious later on.

Margaret and Julie couldn’t be more special or deserving of recognition or praise. They support people at times when no-one else can. But they are just two of the 1,000 volunteers for Samaritans across Scotland. Two of 21,000 volunteers for Samaritans right across the UK.

That’s why it’s so important we celebrate every one of those people during Volunteers’ Week. Without volunteers there would be no Samaritans. There wouldn’t be any lifeboat crews around our coast and waterways. No guide or scout movements. And without volunteers, many much less heralded local charities across Scotland would simply cease to exist.

As our lives become ever busier it is easy to think that we don’t have time to volunteer. We know that volunteering is in decline in Scotland, with a small core of people providing most of our volunteering hours. But without volunteering, we risk losing the social glue that helps hold our communities together. We could never replace all the volunteering hours with paid resources. As a service here – for free – every minute of every day of the year, Samaritans certainly couldn’t.

We might not appear as heroic as some other organisations. But in our own way, the responses our volunteers give to people in need via phone, e-mail or text can be just as important as the person plucked from the seas. Their commitment on a weekly basis to listen to everyone who calls with the same empathy and understanding is just as remarkable.

So whilst applauding those right across our organisation and every other charity who rely on volunteers to do so much good work, I’d ask you too what it is you can contribute, in whatever way you can, so that we can continue our rich tradition of supporting those in need.

Thank you Margaret and Julie. From all of us. This year, as well as saying a massive thank you to our existing volunteers, we want to encourage more people to come on board. If you’ve ever wondered whether volunteering with Samaritans is for you, please visit www.samaritans.org/volunteer-us

*Not their real names

• James Jopling, executive director for Samaritans Scotland