People need to talk and Chris is willing to listen
WITH the Samaritans National Walk coming to North Devon next June, we continue our series on the charity's work in the region with the reflections of one of its longest-standing local volunteers.
When Chris joined Barnstaple Samaritans 20 years ago it was for a simple reason: "I had felt for a long time that people needed to talk."
She had learnt the truth of this from personal experience. "I was married to someone who suffered from severe depression," she said.
"He had periods of suicidal moods but no matter how bad things got he would never talk. He would just bottle it up. When somebody in your family has a problem, the whole family can suffer its effects."
Business Cards From Only £10.95 Delivered www.myprint-247.co.ukView details
Our heavyweight cards have FREE UV silk coating, FREE next day delivery & VAT included. Choose from 1000's of pre-designed templates or upload your own artwork. Orders dispatched within 24hrs.
Terms: Visit our site for more products: Business Cards, Compliment Slips, Letterheads, Leaflets, Postcards, Posters & much more. All items are free next day delivery. www.myprint-247.co.uk
Contact: 01858 468192
Valid until: Sunday, May 26 2013
But Chris's first exposure to such issues came much earlier: "When I was 11, a new girl came to my school. I was both jealous and impressed when I learnt she'd been expelled from four different schools. I pride myself on being adventurous but she was in a different league.
"We became friends. I returned from the Easter holidays to find she'd gone. Eventually the teachers admitted that she'd killed herself as she was so unhappy."
When, many years later, Chris applied to join Samaritans, the effect on her was dramatic: "It was cathartic. A real breakthrough."
The rigours of training came as a surprise, but straightaway her instincts about the importance of talking were confirmed. And, like many new volunteers, she found that what she learnt had applications far beyond her work as a Samaritan.
"It's so much easier for me to handle family tensions having done the Sams training," she said. "To be able to take a step back and listen to what the other person is saying, especially for me as I don't feel I'm a natural listener."
Like all local listening volunteers, Chris attends regular duties at the Samaritans centre in Barnstaple. But she feels the charity's work should extend beyond the walls of the branch office.
"I'm a great believer in outreach," she said. "There are people who don't come to us, so we must go to them."
This is why, for five years, Chris has been visiting Barnstaple's Freedom Centre.
The centre provides support for people with problems such as homelessness, addiction and social exclusion.
Chris said: "Two Samaritans visit once a fortnight for a couple of hours at a time. Sometimes people come up to us and talk. More often than not we go over and ask.
"If they want to talk they do; if not there's no pressure. Interestingly, sometimes they won't talk there but will come over and see us at our branch in Summerland Street.
"The advantage of a face-to-face encounter at the Freedom Centre is that from time to time you see the same people, pick up the story and watch it develop. The centre exists to offer practical help. But we're there simply to listen."
Over her years as a Samaritan, Chris says there is one phrase that comes up again and again: "So many times I've heard people say: 'I've never told anybody this before.' It's like a dam breaking. I can hear the relief in their voices and I know that by listening I can make a difference to their lives.
"It is, in a strange way, very satisfying. I feel that I'm lucky to have picked up the phone and to be able to listen and empathise.
That's especially true when someone is so desperate they wish to kill themselves.
"Most callers haven't reached that point. They may simply need to talk through a particularly knotty problem and think about their options.
"But for some people, death feels like the only choice and they need someone to be with them, knowing that someone cares."
Chris describes herself as a practical person. "The phone rings, and I think: 'That's why I'm here'. Any fear or apprehension lasts but a second.
"There have only been two occasions on which I've been at a loss for words, when I felt that whatever I could say would be inappropriate. All I could do was apologise for the lack of anything relevant.
"At other times, I feel I could have said something differently, or kept quiet, or asked a completely different question. And sometimes you feel that a caller's life is so chaotic there can be no moving forward. But in the end it's enough that they know there are people out there who care enough to listen; who can walk with them a short way along their path."
In recent weeks, Chris has found new tasks being added to her outreach work and her weekly sessions on the phones. June 8 – the date of the Samaritans National Walk – is approaching fast and she is helping with paperwork and fundraising for the big occasion.
"On the day, I'll be helping with registration of the walkers," she says. "I'm really looking forward to it."
If you need to talk to someone the number is 08457 909090 or the local number is 01271 374343. You can e-mail Samaritans at jo@samaritans. org or text 07725 909090.
The website for the walk is at www.walk4sams-2013.co.uk
Text SAMS02 £5 to 70070 if you wish to donate to the branch.
Should you wish to volunteer to help please contact the Samaritans on the above phone numbers or write to 2 Summerland Street, Barnstaple, EX32 8JJ.