I ♥ volunteering

Ruth Sutherland 

Here I share my journey at Samaritans, keeping you informed of the important work of our staff and volunteers, challenging perceptions and asking tough questions.

I welcome all your views and questions so please do leave your comments below.

You can also find me tweeting: @SamaritansRuth

I always wanted to volunteer for Samaritans but many things, preconceived ideas in particular, got in the way.  Being of a compassionate disposition, I feared I’d find it difficult to come to terms with some of the more distressing calls and as a keen problem solver I felt I’d be compelled to help fix people’s problems through practical advice - something Samaritans volunteers pride themselves on never doing. Coupled with a full on career, considerable family commitments – (three children under five at one time) and studying for a Master’s degree, well, you could say I had my hands full.

Nevertheless, volunteering and civic duty always played an important part in my family, so when my children were older I made time to volunteer, despite many competing priorities. I have sat on the playschool committee, parent and teacher association, community youth choir and trusteeships of community and voluntary associations.

My interest in voluntary action piqued when I moved to Northern Ireland in the early 90’s. The political situation there, with its democratic deficit, meant local authorities only had responsibility for bins and burials! In short, if local people wanted to improve things - they had to do it themselves. This, along with the spirited, infectious and diverse group of people I met, inspired me to establish a membership charity promoting and supporting community development with an aim to improve and address inequalities in health. I like to think of it as people power in action and I’m immensely proud that today, twenty years on, the charity is still going strong.

Fast forward to 2015. Thrilled to become the CEO of Samaritans in August – I relished the opportunity to realise my ambition of becoming a Samaritans volunteer. I have now completed my training and am in my probationary phase. I look forward to receiving my volunteer number in the coming months which will mean I’m a fully-fledged Samaritan.  I still have a full on day job, too much to do and lots of family responsibilities (now caring for the older generation as well as being there for adult children, my husband, friends and family), but I look forward to my shift once a week and enjoy the sense of belonging that comes with branch life.

My worries of being too sensitive and practical have been put at ease, and I have found I use my newly developed listening skills daily in my personal and professional life. The power of human connection and the simple humanity of what we offer is so fundamental that volunteering for Samaritans never fails to give me a lift.

I was told that Samaritans gets under your skin and I can certainly vouch for that: I’m well and truly hooked.  

Volunteering is needed more than ever, but these days people are at the mercy of an array of time pressures: longer working hours, later retirement age, less income and greater caring responsibilities (the sandwich generation). One of the challenges faced by Samaritans is meeting demand with supply. Our 24 hour service is delivered by 21,000 volunteers, in 201 branches across the UK and Ireland and we answer a call every 6 seconds. With the introduction of our free phone telephone number last year – we were able to realise a long standing ambition of reaching more people. But with an increase in access to our service, comes a higher volume of calls. Simply put: we need more volunteers and more channels for communication so people can talk to us when and how they like. Volunteering brings rich rewards. Our volunteers tell us they started out because they wanted to give something back, but in reality have found they receive much more than they give.

One of the areas I’m most interested in is the impact that volunteering has on mental health. The 5 ways to wellbeing, researched and developed by New Economics Foundation (NEF) and used the world over, are Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Keep Learning and Give. And few could argue that volunteering ticks most, if not all, of these boxes.

Samaritans prides itself on being volunteer-led; our core service is managed and delivered by volunteers, who are undoubtedly our biggest asset. We’re flying the volunteering flag high and proud and our new strategy encompasses three step changes in digital development, volunteering and learning and development so that we can help more people in more ways so that fewer people die by suicide.

Find out more about volunteering for Samaritans.