Fifty years ago today, the Leeds branch of the Samaritans took its first call. Since then they have dealt with over 1.4m and still receive a 1,000 calls a week. Interviews by Neil Hudson
“You never know what you are going to be dealing with,” says Bob Howe, a retired stockbroker who, for the last 16 years, has been a volunteer with the Leeds Samaritans.
The 61-year-old is one of around 140 volunteers, who give up their time to man the phone lines at the organisation’s headquarters in Clarendon Road.
“But the main thing is that we are there to help.”
Samaritans is one of those organisations which seems part of the fabric of British life and yet it began just over 60 years ago.
It was the brainchild of a young vicar from London called Chad Varah, who found himself conducting the funeral of a 14-year-old girl who committed suicide shortly after she started having periods, mistakenly believing she had a sexually transmitted disease.
After six months, nothing shocks you. People ring with all kinds of problems but what is a problem to one person, isn’t to another. Often, it’s case of it being the straw that breaks the camel’s backRetired headteacher Alwyne Greenbank
The fact she had no-one to talk to was a contributing factor in her suicide and it gave the young vicar the idea of setting up an independent telephone service, which people could phone to talk about anything.
The organisation was an instant success, fielding calls from all quarters, acting as a sounding board to people who had nowhere else to turn. It spread too, arriving in Leeds in 1966.
Yes, it dealt with people who were contemplating suicide but it also gave time to those dealing with all kinds of other problems, from not being able to pay the mortgage to personal and family issues.
Father-of-three Bob, who was a partner at the UK’s largest independent stockbrokers, Redmayne-Bentley, working his way up from tea boy, explains why he became involved with the group.
“I was a stockbroker for 27 years. I grew up in Beeston and went to Beeston Primary School and later Central High School, which later became City of Leeds.
“I joined the firm Redmayne-Bentley as a tea boy because stocks and shares was something that interested me and I gradually worked my way up to become a partner. It’s now the largest independent stockbrokers in the UK with 33 branches.
“I like to think that during my time there, I was always open with people. I always found it easy to talk to people and open up to them. People would come to me and tell me things, I think I’ve always been a good listener.”
The father-of-three, who also has a one-year-old grandson, decided on a career change in 2000.
“I was at a stage in my life where I wanted to give something back, I always like talking to people, so I knew I wanted to do something where I would actually engage with the person on the other end of the line.”
: “I think it’s the knowledge that I was there and able to help when that person rang in, no matter what the time. So, there’s always someone on the phone here, even if it’s three o’clock in the morning.
“Often, these are people who are at a low ebb in life, they don’t know where to turn. Some are suicidal and even though we do not offer advice, having someone to talk to who is not connected to their family or is not part of another organisation, like a doctor or health worker, can be very useful to them at that point.
“Ultimately what we do is listen to them, we ask them questions. Often it can make a big difference in that person’s life and it’s also often the case that they have a clearer idea of what to do and where to go next after speaking to us.
“We live in a busy world, we’re all living hectic lives, a lot of the time people don’t have anyone to talk to. If they do tell someone, often all they will get back is ‘I know how you feel’ but really, you can never know and it’s often difficult for people to talk to family - it’s easier to talk to a stranger.”
Jon Beech is one of those who has benefited from the service in the past. Now 42, he was in his 20s and living in Doncaster when he found himself struggling with a personal issue.
“I was dealing with a lot of stuff at that time and I was confused, because I was surrounded by lots of people giving me advice and I didn’t know what to do. I had no-one else to talk to. I wasn’t even sure if I should call the Samaritans, because I thought you had to be suicidal to do so, which is not the case by the way. Initially I was reluctant to ring because I thought my problem might not be important enough and I’d be taking the place of someone who was suicidal. But the fact that you need someone to talk to is good enough for them.
“It really helped me at that time, I think I made two or three calls and it really helped me to work some stuff out, because I had no-one else to talk to and the people who were giving me advice were just confusing me. I’m a big supporter of the service and I think it helps a lot of people get back on track.”
Samaritans works with anyone and everyone, offering a free, confidential listening service, free from advice - it’s a shoulder to cry on.
Nationally, someone calls The Samaritans once every six seconds. In Leeds they take about 50,000 calls a year, or roughly 1,000 a week.
In addition to speaking to people on the phone, they also now field text messages, emails and run drop-in sessions at schools, Armley Jail and health centres.
The oldest volunteer in Leeds, who is still answering calls from people, is 83.
Alwyne Greenbank has been a volunteer for over 20 years. In that time, she has dealt with all manner of calls. “After the first six months of working here, I don’t think there’s anything that will shock you,” says the retired headteacher. “People ring with all kinds of problems but what will be a problem to one person, won’t to another. Often, it’s a case of it being the straw that breaks the camel’s back and these people are ringing because they have got to that point.”
But if volunteers are listening to other people’s problems, do they ever need to speak to someone?
“Sometimes you do come off the line and you feel as though you have to unload on someone. We never work alone here, no matter what time it is, so there’s always someone else to speak to and if we’ve had one of those calls, they we will make sure we talk about it, so that we don’t take it home with us.
“When I came to work here I wanted to give something back to the community but if you’d told me I’d still be here 20 years later I wouldn’t have believed you. I think the service we offer is vital. We do not give advice but we do ask people questions and listen to them and quite often that’s all they need to be able to move on.”
The service is always looking for volunteers and has a training programme for those who want to join.
Today’s anniversary will be marked with a special ceremony at 11am, which will be attended by the volunteer who took the first call half a century ago and also by the Lord Mayor of Leeds, who will unveil a 50th anniversary plaque and cut an anniversary cake.
To volunteer to be a Samaritan, contact them at the number above.
The organisation started in 1953 and came to Leeds in 1966
Since opening here in 1966, the Leeds Samaritans have dealt with more than 1.4m calls
Over the same period, Leeds Samaritans have trained over 3,000 volunteers
Nationally someone calls Samaritans every six seconds – that’s over 5.4m calls a year
They offer a confidential ‘listening’ service 24 hours a day, 365 days a year
Samaritans relies almost entirely on donations to run its 201 branches and train more than 21,000 dedicated volunteers
Free phone: 116 123 or 0113 2456789 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org