How you can support the Samaritans in Sunderland in 2020 as volunteers deal with busiest time of the year

They have comforted tens of thousands of people over the last half century and are gearing up for another busy year after little festive rest.

Monday, 30th December 2019, 9:33 am
Sunderland Samaritans' branch director Suzanne Armitage

Dozens of volunteers at the Sunderland branch of the nationwide Samaritans charity gave up part of their Christmas Day to listen to the confidential concerns of both telephone callers and visitors to their Grange Terrace premises.

More than 300,000 people nationwide contacted the organisation last Christmas with a similar number expected to have done likewise once this year’s figures are confirmed.

The Samaritans are also not expecting the despairing pleas for help – which can be made anonymously – to stop once the celebrations end.

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Sunderland Samaritans' branch director Suzanne Armitage takes another call.

Sunderland branch director Suzanne Armitage explains: “On Christmas Day our phone never stops ringing from the moment we switch on until we finish our shifts.

“Often it can be people who are lonely and become upset because they see other people together enjoying themselves at Christmas.

“But it can also be people who have families who ring confidentially to talk about the pressures they are facing at Christmas.”

Those pressures, of course, do not often manifest themselves until the New Year.

Samaritans volunteers outside their then new home in Grange Terrace in the early 1980s.

Mrs Armitage adds: “The excitement of Christmas often carries people through until they crash afterwards and start to feel the financial pressures when they begin to wonder how they are going to pay for it all.”

As part of the anticipated upsurge in calls, the Sunderland branch will be taking part in a nationwide Samaritans event on Monday, January 20, 2020.

Blue Monday – so called due to the bitter winter recipe of dark nights, cold weather and incoming credit card bills – is instead named Brew Monday by the 66-year-old charity.

The Sunderland branch, one of 201 nationwide, will be among those holding a coffee morning, at a location still to be confirmed, to encourage people to talk about their problems.

The event is one of a number of initiatives planned by volunteers during 2020 to mark 50 years since the organisation arrived in the city.

Originally opening above a Chinese takeaway in Vine Place on February 2, 1970, the Samaritans moved to their current home in the early 1980s.

With volunteer numbers rising from an initial 20 to a peak of around 100 before dipping to its current figure of 64, the branch is also launching a 50 for 50 campaign to train 50 more recruits.

Mrs Armitage – who initially joined the Samaritans in 1995 to “give something back to the community” after overcoming personal issues – says: “Anyone can become a volunteer from any walk of life and will undergo rigorous training to help prepare them for the role.

“They preferably need to be over 18 with more life experience, be empathetic and be reliable. We need to know people will turn up or we have to shut the place if we do not have enough people here.”

Often the Samaritans can signpost callers to other organisations for help with their particular problems.

Often too the callers seem merely relieved to vent their frustrations and anxieties to someone else without needing to contact a third party.

“What I would say to anyone unsure about whether or not to contact us is just do it,” says Mrs Armitage.

“You will always get a warm welcome here if you call in and if we are closed there is always someone to talk to at another branch.”

The 20,000-strong nationwide army of volunteers now answers a call every six seconds to its 24-hour helpline and Mrs Armitage herself noticed that the Sunderland branch’s workload had increased considerably after she returned in 2016 following an 11-year break.

“It is a good thing in one sense,” she says.

“We do not want people to remain silent and want them to engage and reach out for help.

“Now, of course, people have more access to phones whereas before there was just one phone in the house and people had to go out and make a call from telephone boxes.”

While there are no local figures available, Mrs Armitage says that part of that rise is down to an increase in the number of younger callers.

“There has been a huge increase in young people contacting us,” she says.

“Not just students, who have the pressures of living away from home and finances, but young people generally with peer pressure and social media.”

The Sunderland branch is attempting to meet this demand as part of its outreach programme by holding regular confidential sessions at the University of Sunderland.

Nationally, the charity is also launching a new bespoke instant messaging service in 2020 to replace its current text message system.

The increased workload, perhaps not coincidentally, has followed a near decade of austerity triggered largely by public sector cuts.

These too have placed added pressures on the Sunderland branch as it attempts to meet its estimated £25,000 annual running costs.

Mrs Armitage says: “Every branch is entirely self funding. Local authorities help us when they can but they have their own pressures as well so we are constantly fundraising by doing collections and people doing the Great North Run for us.”

Yet for all the challenges faced by the branch and its volunteers, she insists: “It is not all doom and gloom.

“It is wrong to say you enjoy what you do here but it is very satisfying, particularly when you get a call back to say thank you or when you are out collecting money and someone drops money in the bucket before giving you a knowing look in the face and you know they must have been a caller.”

*Anyone wishing to donate towards the Sunderland branch of the Samaritans is urged to do so via The Samaritans of Sunderland page on the Virgin Money Giving site here or by contacting Mrs Armitage on (07482) 460829.

The branch at 13 Grange Terrace, off Stockton Road, is open from 10am-10pm on Tuesdays-Wednesdays and Fridays-Sundays from 10am-10pm.

Emails can be sent to [email protected] and the charity’s national 24-hour hotline can be contacted on 116123. All contact is confidential and can be made with anonymity.