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Stratford Samaritans – available to listen and help any time of the year

While most of us will be enjoying the festive season with family and friends, many others will be contemplating a totally different today... and possibly no tomorrow.

The Samaritans helps save lives every minute of every day, every year – not just at Christmas.

Here’s the story of James Sorel-Cameron, a volunteer at Stratford Samaritans and how he joined one of the country’s best known charities which marked its 70th anniversary this year.

MY mother was a Samaritan volunteer in Norwich in the 1960s and when I worked briefly in London, I went down to the beautiful Wren Church of St Stephen’s Walbrook where the vicar, Chad Varah, had founded Samaritans 15 years earlier.

Appalled at the suicide rate, Rev Varah offered a free service for any who needed to have a confidential ear into which they might talk through the troubles of their lives, troubles that not infrequently brought them to the edge of suicide.

Rev Varah was quickly inundated by people who needed to talk.

He invited some women from his pastoral connections to come and sit with those who came to see him. These women sat, talked with the people and, above all, listened. Some did not then really need to see the vicar, they had only wanted somewhere to offload what was weighing them down, to let light into the darkness within which they were trapped.

These women were the first Samaritan volunteers Rev Varah brought in and trained to listen without judgement.

He said: “They listen and listen and listen, without interrupting. They have no message. They do not preach. They have nothing to sell. We call them Samaritans.”

James Sorel-Cameron.
James Sorel-Cameron.

I can’t remember if I was lucky enough to be interviewed by Rev Varah, but he was part of the training team when I joined. Training in those days was essentially a series of lectures.

Now the training is very structured and ensures that our volunteers feel as prepared and supported as possible. After all, Samaritans are ordinary people, just like you, but trained to do extraordinary things every day.

Rev Varah died in 2007. He never wanted to be known principally as the founder of Samarians, but as a teacher, an educator, and someone who changed attitudes. He wanted people to be free to enjoy life fully, to be let out of the prisons in which often religion or the sanctimonious, self-righteous moralists had tried to lock them, driving so many to the point of their not wanting to be alive any more.

Chad Varah founder of the Samaritans.
Chad Varah founder of the Samaritans.

Back in the late 1960s he was an active and present inspiration at St Stephen’s. I was privileged to have known him, privileged to have volunteered under him, which I continue to do.

From those humble beginnings there are now more than 20,000 individuals and in 2020 Samaritan volunteers answered over five million calls from people in distress.

The Samaritan freefone line – 116 123 – is manned 24 hours a day, every day of the year, particularly at Christmas when the lonely feel their loneliness more acutely than ever.

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