SAMARITANS MARK 50 YEARS OF HELPING PEOPLE IN NORTH DOWN

SAMARITANS volunteers have marked 50 years of providing emotional support for those in distress and despair with a special anniversary weekend of events.

To celebrate the milestone for the Bangor and North Down branch, which first opened its doors in 1973, Samaritans volunteers were treated to a special town hall reception, hosted by the deputy mayor for the Ards and North Down, Hannah Irwin, who paid tribute to their dedication and commitment.

The anniversary also marked the local branch’s hosting of the prestigious annual Samaritans Ireland Conference, at the Old Inn, Crawfordsburn. 

Samaritans volunteers from all over the island of Ireland, together with a number of eminent professionals from a diverse arena of mental health and wellbeing backgrounds, were in attendance to focus on the theme of Building Resilience Together.  

The Samaritans organisation was founded in London in 1953 by Dr Chad Varah, in an attempt to help people who were considering ending their lives, setting up a helpline which took its first ever call on November 2 of that year.

Over the past 70 years, the organisation has grown to 20,000 volunteers and more than 200 branches across the UK and Ireland, with a vision of fewer people dying by suicide. Every 10 seconds, Samaritans responds to a call for help. 

The Bangor and North Down Branch was established 20 years after this date, in 1973, with the founding members including Billy Gaw and the Rev. Robert Gilmor. 

Its first director, John Turner welcomed Dr Varah to the branch just two years later for a special visit, when he commended volunteers’ commitment to the values and visions of the fledgling organisation. 

As part of the branch’s 50th anniversary celebrations, the daughter of Dr Varah, Felicity Varah Harding attended the weekend’ Samaritans Ireland Conference, in her role as Ambassador and Honorary President of Samaritans.

I am delighted to join the celebrations of 50 years of unwavering support and dedication at the Bangor and North Down Samaritans,” she said.

“This remarkable milestone is a testament to the power of empathy and the spirit of community within Samaritans. The volunteers have been a beacon of hope for countless individuals facing life’s challenges. They have listened, comforted, and provided a lifeline to those in need, embodying the true essence of compassion. 

“As we celebrate this half-century journey, let us not only applaud the accomplishments of the past but also look forward to the future. The Bangor and North Down Samaritans remain steadfast in their commitment to supporting those in emotional distress, ensuring that no one faces their struggles alone.”

Back in 1953, Dr Varah acknowledged that there was a dearth of volunteers, and today, the challenges of meeting the hours of need from callers remain. 

In the 12 months ended March 2023, volunteers from the Bangor and North Down branch provided confidential, emotional, non-judgemental support to over 15,000 callers, with the branch’s volunteers giving up in excess of 3,000 hours of their time, in the process. 

Volunteers are ordinary people who understand the power of listening, giving space to those in distress. Being heard, without judgement, encourages people to talk through the options open to them, allowing them to find their own way forward.

The aim of Samaritans is to reduce the number of people who die by suicide, whilst recognising that as individuals, all have free will.  

New volunteers in the branch are always welcome, both in a listening or a support capacity. Volunteers can help, not only by talking to callers, but also by providing much needed support in areas such as fundraising, IT, administration, finance and generating publicity. 

The Director of the Bangor and North Down Branch, Heather Hamilton, explained that people don’t need to have been through a life experience or be from a certain walk of life, to become a volunteer. Anyone who wants to help others, is tolerant and open-minded is welcome to apply. 

Stressing how rewarding it is to be a volunteer, Heather added: “Above all you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you are there for anyone who needs someone. In addition, you’ll broaden your skills, make new friendships, and be part of an amazing group of people.”

Further details of volunteering in the local branch of Samaritans are available on https://www.samaritans.org/branches/bangor-and-north-down/

The branch is aware of the importance of reaching out to the local community and has, in recent times, delivered a range of emotional awareness presentations to a number of schools, and local community and mental health groups in the Bangor and North Down area, together with South Eastern Regional College. 

In addition, it has provided emotional support to young offenders and women prisoners in the Hydebank Wood Young Offenders Centre and Prison, in conjunction with the Belfast branch.

More recently, the branch has been extensively involved in helping local businesses create working environments that promote mental wellbeing, through specialist Mental Health Awareness in the Workplace Training. For further details on Samaritans NI Mental Health Awareness/Workplace Training, contact anita@red-revolution.co.uk.  

Similarly, fundraising is the cornerstone of the branch’s continued existence, and in this regard, the ongoing generosity and support of the community in Bangor and North Down is much appreciated, added Heather.