Fifty years ago in Bradford, a group of people came together to offer a listening ear to those who needed it.
They formed the local branch of Samaritans and for five decades, the charity has helped thousands of people to find strength, no matter what they are going through.
That invaluable work is continuing. “In the 1960s, Bradford was an early adopter of many things and has been since then,” says Austin Duffy, a long-time volunteer with the charity.
“We don’t have a big sense of history, though. We concentrate on the here and now and how we can better support our callers in the future.”
Last year, the branch took 25,000 calls, of which almost 5,000 expressed various degrees of suicidal feelings. The team of around 60 volunteers also responded to 1,200 e-mails from members of the public and helped a further 50 people face-to-face at their Manningham base.
A decade ago, more than 40,000 calls were taken, but that figure has fallen due to a decline in the number of volunteers.
“Opening hours are not as long as they have been for this reason,” says Austin. “It takes 12 volunteers to man the branch for 24 hours, so we need a minimum of 84 every week, plus we have to allow for holidays, illness and absences for other reasons.”
Anyone who rings the local branch when it is unmanned will not, however, be left hanging on the end of a phone line. “We have a very sophisticated telephone system which diverts calls to other branches if needs be,” says Austin.
“We get a lot of calls from lonely people, those who have been bereaved or are suffering for another reason.
“We don’t give advice or try to talk people out of acting a certain way – we just give them the space to explore their feelings. Because we are anonymous, at the end of a phone line, people feel they can tell us things that they would not say to others.”
E-mail contacts arrive from a central server. “Those we respond to could be from anywhere in the country or overseas,” says Austin.
The charity was founded in 1953 in London by a young vicar called Chad Varah. Throughout his career, he had offered counselling to his parishioners, and wanted to help people in distress who had no-one to turn to.
At the time, he made reference to a 14-year-old girl who had started her periods, but, having no-one to talk to, she believed she had a sexually-transmitted disease and took her own life.
The Bradford branch was at first based in Marlborough Road, Manningham, moving in 1998 to its present home in Mornington Villas after a substantial bequest was made to the branch to enable it to buy larger premises.
Austin began volunteering after reading about the charity in the T&A. “I went through a bad time and came through it. Having been there, I felt it was something I’d like to do.”
During their 50th year, the branch want to take the service to out the community and start a project similar to the Feet on the Street campaign which began in Bridgend, South Wales. The Welsh project involves going out into the streets to provide face-to-face emotional support.
“We plan to have a low-key presence at events across the district to allow people to find out more about us. It will raise awareness.”
More volunteers are needed and anyone interested can attend a presentation day on Sunday. This is followed by a selection day prior to the training course, which begins next month.
“We like people to find out as much as they can – it is not for everyone, and some people feel they are not for it,” says Austin.
Training takes place over ten weeks, consisting of two full days and eight evening sessions. “The level of training is very important,” says Austin. “You could start your first duty and receive a call from someone in the act of taking their own life. That would be very unusual, but we have to train people for that eventuality.”
Volunteers must commit to a minimum of 18 hours each month.
Austin stresses the high level of support given to volunteers from others at the branch, and how rewarding an experience it can be.
“It is a wonderful feeling to talk to someone and, during the conversation, have them reach a conclusion about a problem they couldn’t solve when they came on the phone.”
The presentation day takes place on Sunday, from 11am to 1pm. For more details, ring (01904) 547547.