Preston branch volunteer Stella Hayes has just received a British Citizen Award for 25 years supporting Samaritans’ Prison Listener scheme. Stella and her family are coming to London to receive the award on 28 January.
“I literally fell over Samaritans – I was in town with one of my children and tripped on one of the collecting buckets outside a caravan and knocked it over. I went inside with it and met Pam, one of the volunteers, who said: “Have you thought of being a Samaritans volunteer?”
“I thought – who me? – I can’t!”
“That was 27 years ago. and I think it is so valuable – it’s been a thread that runs through my life. It grounds you, it becomes a habit –you think you have problems and you find that someone else has it so much worse.
“I got involved with the Prison Listener scheme after going to a speech by a psychologist called Kathy Biggar, around the times of the Strangeways riots in Manchester in the late 1980s. The conditions were Dickensian, the men were still slopping out.
“The Listener scheme in our area was set up first at HMP Wymott, Garth, Kirkham and Preston, a real mix of prisoners, from lifers and sex offenders to people serving their time in an open prison. At first there was some hostility and the officers weren’t keen on us implementing the scheme. . One probation officer said to me: ‘These things don’t work!’
I said: ‘Well, we will give it ten years’.
“It was hard at first. We used to walk the wings in twos and give out Samaritans cards, and try and encourage people to speak to us. I remember one time Josephine, who I was with, was standing on a wing and some of the prisoners approached her and said: “What are you doing here, love?” They were worried about her! Gradually it changed until they looked forward to us coming in.
“At another prison we were only allowed to walk between the wings with dogs. There was a phone on a trolley and if anyone wanted to call Samaritan, people would run down to their cell with a phone, which had a long cable.
“One of the prison officers called Dean, got right behind the Listener scheme and did a lot of work to help us make progress, even down to getting curtains in the crisis room, as it was called then.
“Conditions improved – prisoners went from slopping out to having toilets in cells. Now the Listeners come to us, we don’t walk the wings anymore.
“When Listeners first start training, they are a bit tentative – and then they blossom. They acquire a sense of purpose and respect from their fellow inmates, who look up to them. For some men, it’s a revelation, as it takes them out of their own bubble and into someone else’s.
“We have worked hundreds of hours to ensure the Listener Scheme is an essential asset and it’s such a valuable resource for prisoners in distress.
“Being a Samaritans volunteer increases your tolerance and understanding. When I lost my son, the support was like a big hug.
“Nothing will shock me any more – it opens up your mind, if you do it properly.
"And I was told: ‘If you do one thing properly, make it this."