A Wearside woman’s commitment to helping prisoners across the North East has been recognised by the Queen.
Joanna Smith has been awarded an MBE in the New Year’s Honours List.
Joanna, 51, is deputy director for prisons, North East England, for the Samaritans and works with offenders in prisons including Durham, Low Newton and Frankland, providing support and counselling.
The commendation for her award reads: “Her exemplary voluntary service has made her an outstanding ambassador for the Samaritans, volunteers in general and females in particular.
“It is this commitment and drive which has given her the opportunity to deliver an innovative project with the prison environment.”
Joanna, from Houghton, was stunned to learn she had been honoured: “I actually giggle every time I think about it - it is quite unreal,” she said.
“I was really, really shocked but also really pleased - to be recognised for what you do is lovely.
“I have no idea who nominated me - nobody has said anything to me.”
Joanna has been a member of the Samaritans for 13 years and joined the charity after going through a painful break-up: “I had family and friends who helped me through, but it made me think ‘What if you don’t have somebody?’ I understood how desperate some people must feel and it all went from there.”
Joanna’s work in prisons involves training inmates with the listening skills that she has learned as a Samaritans volunteer, so they can act as counsellors to their fellow prisoners.
“We train them to help others - that is the most rewarding thing and that is probably why I have got the award. I am quite committed to that,” she said.
“I have some times been going into two prisons a week. It has almost developed into a full-time job on top of my full-time job,” said Joanna, who works in the estates department at County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service.
Her experience with the Samaritans is also proving useful at work, where she had been involved in setting up mental health support services for firefighters.
“Some people would rather ring in sick than admit they are struggling,” she said.
Although Joanna is delighted with her honour, her real reward comes from her work with the Samaritans: “I had a letter from a client who said that I had saved her life,” she said.
“She had no doubt that she would have gone on to kill herself had she not had someone to talk to.
“To know you have made a difference is lovely.”