More than 21 million people volunteer in the UK at least once a year and this contributes an estimated £23.9 billion to our economy. Behind these big numbers is a big contribution. And without that contribution there would be no Samaritans.
A couple of weeks ago, at 3.30am in one of the 19 branches of Samaritans in Scotland, I appreciated that contribution only too well. I spent a nightshift with Margaret and Julie* who were taking calls from right across the country from people who needed to talk. People for whom life had taken an unexpected turn, people who had seen problems build up or people who just couldn’t quite put their finger on what was causing their distress. They all needed a safe space, with someone who was an expert listener.
Margaret had been volunteering with Samaritans for 13 years, Julie for six. After comprehensive training they are doing roughly a shift a week and a nightshift once a month. During the day they’ll often be responding to texts, e-mails and calls. But such was the level of demand during this nightshift they could only answer calls.
It was only by “logging off” the system half way through their shift we were able to catch up. Their reasons for initially volunteering for Samaritans weren’t that remarkable in themselves. But their commitment ever since was. They’d both spent time supporting the branch by fundraising, awareness raising, visiting local schools and other organisations keen to hear about Samaritans’ work.
I also learnt how calls aren’t only from those in absolute crisis and considering suicide. Addressing emotional pressures or worries and simply talking about these proved truly valuable too. Actions that could help prevent things from getting more serious later on.
Margaret and Julie couldn’t be more special or deserving of recognition or praise. They support people at times when no-one else can. But they are just two of the 1,000 volunteers for Samaritans across Scotland.
That’s why it’s so important we celebrate every one of those people during Volunteers’ Week. Without volunteers there would be no Samaritans. There wouldn’t be any lifeboat crews. No guide or scout movements. And many much less heralded local charities across Scotland would simply cease to exist.
As our lives become ever busier it is easy to think that we don’t have time to volunteer. Volunteering is in decline in Scotland, with a small core of people providing most of our volunteering hours. But without volunteering, we risk losing the social glue that helps hold our communities together.
*Not their real names
James Jopling, executive director for Samaritans Scotland www.samaritans.org/volunteer-us