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In praise of…Bristol Samaritans

July 27, 2011

Earlier this week I was a guest at the re-opening of the offices of the Bristol branch of the Samaritans.  I visited them a few years ago at their St Nicholas Street base.  The rabbit warren of rooms I saw then has now been transformed into a modern office suite, fit for the purpose of listening and giving comfort to distressed people.  There are even bed rooms for the volunteers on night shifts.

Bristol Samaritans started in 1964 and it is now one of the biggest branches in the country with over 200 volunteers.  In fact everyone is a volunteer – only the office cleaner gets paid.  The branch funds all of its activities from donations. Many of the volunteers were there for the re-opening, including Cyril a founder volunteer 47 years ago, now in his 90s and still a listener.  I met many volunteers who I know from other parts of my life including a former neighbour and a friend from my gym.  The Big Society has been going in Bristol for a long time…

In 1964 the then Lord Mayor unveiled the plaque and made the first telephone call.  The current Lord Mayor did the same on Monday.  I then unveiled a new picture drawn by a volunteer, Stevie.  He has also been a prison listener, hearing the concerns of inmates of Horfield gaol.  I met a group of listeners on my last visit to the prison.

The Samaritans offer a confidential 24/7 emotional support service for anyone feeling distress or despair.  The Bristol branch can be contacted on 0117 983 1000.  You can also have a conversation in person with a volunteer.  See http://www.samaritans.org/bristol/ for more details if you need help or want to become a Samaritan yourself.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 27, 2011 10:49 pm

    Thank you Stephen for bringing this issue to the forefront which means those in need have a better chance of getting the support they need🙂

  2. rosemary permalink
    July 28, 2011 9:47 am

    Very timely piece Stephen. And are you going to see the Salvation Army soon?

    Interesting point about the cleaner being paid. Should charity workers do their own cleaning, to qualify as truly voluntary? (There would have to be a rota of course, so one sex doesn’t do it all.)

    I raise the quibble, as so many charities – but certainly not this one – seem to have morphed into career opportunities, with huge sums going on salaries. Here, and abroad. In very poor parts of Africa, for instance, rents – and levels of prostitution – soar, because the Aid workers are paid so much more than the locals.

    Charity – and The Samaritans are an excellent example of this – should be something we all do on top of our work and private lives, if we possibly can. Its vision and resources are more likely to prosper, in the true sense, if people don’t feel they are just raising money to pay their colleagues.

    This is one of the things I think the PM has been trying to get people to grapple with: the Big Society is the opposite of the Big State; so charities should no longer expect to function as paid agents of the government – as so many of them came to do under Gordon Brown’s stewardship. But because there is now this very big vested interest in being paid by the government to do charity, the message isn’t being allowed through. How often have you heard people on the BBC, for instance, sneering that they don’t know what the Big Society means, rather than inspiring people to do whatever they can to help their country in its plight, as you are here?

    • July 28, 2011 9:36 pm

      Rosemary – good points. The Samaritans have an amazing staff:volunteer ratio. In Bristol even the chair and co-ordinator are unpaid volunteers. I agree with you that people should not sneer at the phrase Big Society, ok it may be a new brand name for something that already exists but it’s not bad description of the community spirit that we should all encourage.

  3. rosemary permalink
    July 29, 2011 10:25 am

    A bit off topic, as they say, but did you speak in the reform of the Lords debate? (Not so off topic as it sounds, because the House of Lords as it used to be was not a career opportunity, and I fear the thing it is morphing into now, may be.)

  4. rosemary permalink
    August 1, 2011 8:36 pm

    You have previously mentioned the four estates. Besides all of these, there are judges and generals, police chiefs, bishops, deans, and lords lieutenant, as well as sheriffs. Then there are headmasters and vice chancellors, ambassadors, chairmen of this and that … and all the rest of the establishment, too long to list. So is it only the second chamber you now want to change to being elected?

    And what is it exactly that you want it to do? You don’t dwell on this at all. When you have decided that, then maybe you should look at how you want it composed, so that its objects may best be achieved.

    Many of us would have preferred to have started with long overdue reform of the House of Commons, as it has seemed for a very long time that whereas the House of Lords was doing a good job (and extremely good value for money too) in laboriously revising legislation sent up without always enough thought from the House of Commons, the House of Commons has done a rotten job in holding the Executive to account. Why is that? Could it be that it has the wrong sort of person in it? Perhaps election and its processes don’t serve us well in procuring the right sort of person to speak truth to power.

    I also fear that insisting only election confers legitimacy will leave the monarchy dangerously exposed. Perhaps you want an elected head of state too, and this is the way to get it. But why then should the fourth estate escape, especially the all-powerful broadcasters, and not be elected too?

    Ths is not in any way a criticism of you personally, and I hope you will be able to stand back from it and consider this: have recent assaults on the composition of the House of Lords been justified more on grounds of envy than of wisdom? And does the same apply to republican sentiment? In considering our constitutional arrangements, which have come about organically down the ages, isn’t the most important thing to consider, not how logical they are in the cold light of reason, but with their intricate and quirky checks and balances, do they protect our liberties?

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