Marking 50 years of lending an ear to those in crisis - Colchester, Tendring & Suffolk Borders branch of the Samaritans celebrates milestone

The Colchester, Tendring and Suffolk Borders Samaritans are celebrating their 50th anniversary.

The Colchester, Tendring and Suffolk Borders Samaritans are celebrating their 50th anniversary. Virginia Druitt (4th from the left) with volunteers from the group. - Credit: Archant

This year the Colchester, Tendring and Suffolk Borders branch of the Samaritans is marking its 50th anniversary.

Reporter Will Lodge spoke to branch director Virginia Druitt about the challenges past, present and future.

Although much has changed for the Colchester, Tendring and Suffolk Borders Samaritans in the past 50 years, their core mission has not. Their ultimate purpose is to listen to those in crisis and provide non-judgmental advice and support.

Volunteers will not impose their views, and are not afraid to explore any issue raised by those in need.

Countless issues are covered by the Colchester branch. In 2013 it handled 30,820 contacts, or which 56% expressed feelings of distress, despair or suicide.

The local branch, which covers the entire CO postcode, began in a small rented building in Vineyard Street, Colchester,

In 2011 it moved into the refurbished Walsingham Road Community Hall, a move branch director Virginia Druitt describes as “a huge improvement”.

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“We can do all our training on-site, and can let it out to give us some income.

“It also provides a site for our book fairs once a month and to hold coffee mornings so we are very much part of the community, and well positioned for people to see us face to face.”

Perhaps the biggest shift in the branch’s 50 years is its community focus. The Samaritans prides itself on confidentiality, and for years most volunteers would also remain anonymous to avoid putting off potential callers who may know them.

While some still prefer to avoid being linked to their role, as a whole the organisation is moving to become much more pro-active in the community and discreet face-to-face meetings allows Samaritans to pro-actively reach out to those who may be in need rather than waiting – and hoping – for them to call.

Mrs Druitt said: “Instead of waiting for people to come to us we are trying to focus on being where people might need us.”

With this in mind a new session is starting on Friday mornings at the CCVS centre in Rosemary Road, Clacton, where from 10am to 1pm people can drop in for face-to-face support.

Volunteers also attend big events such as those at Castle Park, and visit schools to explain to young people how important it is to talk.

The branch now has around 100 listening volunteers, with 80 active at any one time, all backed up by 25 support volunteers who take care of the finances, fundraising and other vital behind-the-scenes functions – though new volunteers are always welcome.

IT support has increasingly become one of these crucial roles as the Samaritans keep up with the latest technological advances.

As well as maintaining the telephone service – though it has updated now so you are connected to other branches if the local one is busy – and an email service, the Samaritans is the first organisation to have a 24-hour texting service.

“Who knows what will come next,” said Mrs Druitt. “Some sort of instant messaging maybe.

“But the core of what we do has remained the same.”

As well as keeping up with the times, the Colchester branch is also at the cutting edge of the organisation as it moves into the future.

“At the moment the organisation as whole is focusing on partnerships. We recently had a partnership with the North Essex Partnership [the mental health trust for mid- and north Essex] who made referrals to us, with patients’ permission, and asked us to call them,” said Mrs Druitt.

“This is now being rolled out as a national model.

“There is a national partnership with Network Rail and we work with them and rail operators to put signs up in stations and train staff to spot potentially vulnerable people, as well as offering staff and public support following an incident on the train line.

“Nationally quite a lot is done with prisons, and though we don’t have a prison here in we do have the Military Corrective Training Centre in Colchester, and we have an arrangement with them to go in and talk to the detainees and explain how we can support them and their families.”

Overall the number of people contacting the Samaritans is going up. For the Colchester branch the 2013 figure was a 5% increase on the previous year.

However Mrs Druitt says this is not necessarily a bad thing as it means more people are coming forward for help.

“It reinforces how important it is to be there.

“But in a way we are pleased we are reaching out to more people. There may have been people, particularly young people, who were not aware of us.

“People are talking to us rather than suffering in silence.

“We don’t generally get people coming back, we don’t know what happens afterwards.

“But it is always gratifying when people say ‘Thanks, I needed that’, or come up to us when we are collecting money and say how we helped them. You realise it does make a difference.

“In another 50 years I would very much hope our core values remain the same, but I would envisage people contacting us in different ways.”

To find out more about volunteering for the Samaritans visit the website.

To contact the Samaritans because you are in crisis call 08457 909090 or 01206 561234.