21 February 1996

GOOD TO TALK

AWAY TROUBLE

Could you become a Samaritan? Or a Friend of Samaritans? Operation 10,000 aims to persuade that number of people to find out more about this voluntary work.

Ann Rogers reports

FAMILY expectations had pushed the young man into farming. He envied his brother, he said as he tended the ewes and lambs in the old barn. His brother had been able to go off and follow a career of his choice. The young farmer was clearly depressed and a disastrous lambing could be the last straw.

It was a familiar situation, as was that of the gamekeepers wife, new to the area and living in an isolated cottage. While her husband visited the pub in his few off-duty hours, she was tied to the home with two small children, lonely and depressed.

Then there was the vet whose personal relationships were in a mess, and the newly widowed villager, a non-driver in a community with few services who was unable to get out and about since her husbands death.

Film characters

But these people had more in common than unhappiness. Each was a character in a film made to explain the work of the Samaritans in rural areas, and most were Samaritans themselves playing a part. The film, called The Last Straw, was made to be shown by those who go out to give talks and promote the organisations work.

"When Ive been freezing cold on the beet elevator Ive asked myself, What am I doing this for? So it was not so difficult to act that part," said the young man who played the farmer in the film.

John (not his real name) runs his familys farm in Herefordshire, a mixed enterprise based on a 48ha (120-acre) holding but with rented off-lying land as well. He has also built up an extensive contracting business employing up to a dozen people in the summer, and a hay and straw merchant.

As the business began to grow John began to think that there was more to life than earning money and felt the need to give something back to the community. A strong interest in people led him to contact his local Samaritans centre in Hereford. He was invited to attend an open evening to learn something about the work of the Samaritans before submitting a formal application and a couple of references.

"When I was interviewed I said I wanted to become a better listener," he recalls, "and I thought I had blown it."

But he was accepted for selection weekends and evenings from which he graduated to the training programme, where learning to listen better was one of the skills taught. Others include "learning to deal with calls and your own prejudices," he adds, "and you learn a lot about yourself too."

Probationer status

Once past the basic training, volunteers are accepted as probationers and work with an experienced volunteer for six months or so. Masses of support and training are readily available for experienced volunteers too, points out John.

Although he has a busy business and social life, being self-employed makes him more flexible than someone who works nine to five for an employer, he says. He was happy to be a "gap filler," as he puts it, carrying out his weekly three to four-hour shift when no one else was available and fitting any business calls he needed to make in Hereford into the same trip.

The Hereford centre is open to day-time visitors in addition to receiving phone calls at any hour of the day and night. Two to four people are on duty at any one time plus probationers and they could be hearing from people facing problems associated with inner-city life just as much as rural ones.

"You have to work at controlling your own emotions," says John. "If you jump into their problem with them you probably wont last very long. Your job is not to solve a problem or give advice. Your role is active listening. Examine what is going on and the person will, hopefully, work their own problem out.

"If you imagine someone has got themselves in a hole, stuck half way. You have to go into their hole with them, go down to the bottom and try to work them back out of it again.

"There is a tendency to throw a rope and say hang on, mate, I will pull you out. But then when you let go they will fall again. You have to learn to work with them."

Chance to talk

Sometimes people appear to be requesting information and while volunteers have addresses and phone numbers of helpful organisations like Cruise to hand, that may not be what the caller really wants. John gives as an example a woman who rang up to say that she had a lot of mens clothes to give away. She didnt really want the address of the nearest charity shop but an opportunity to talk about her bereavement.

As a farmer working on his own most of the time, John enjoyed the company of fellow Samaritans. He found them friendly and open with each other and while the work was sometimes tiring, it was a different kind of tiredness from that which he was used to. It also had a relaxing quality since it was so different from the farm.

He discovered that volunteers did more than man phones. There were extra jobs to be done such as writing letters, prison visiting and giving talks. John volunteered to become a speaker. "I dont mind going out and can be available during the day," he says. As a speaker he visited groups like the Womens Institute and Young Farmers Clubs; he went into hospitals to talk at training courses and visited schools.

John particularly enjoyed meeting the young people and besides talking about the work of the Samaritans he related back to a general theme of communication and the value of talking.

But Samaritans dont just need listening volunteers, they need friends, he explains. "Friends of Samaritans raise funds to keep the show on the road. The Hereford Centre has eight groups of friends who are very good at fund-raising."

People from all walks of life serve as Samaritans. Being a farmer gave John (that is not his real name) more flexibility about the times at which he carried out his shifts.