A grant is helping the Samaritans train new volunteer listeners as it faces a more than 20 per cent increase in calls.
Swindon and District Samaritans has been awarded £3,500 from Wiltshire Community Foundation’s Coronavirus Response and Recovery Fund to buy new headsets and carry out extra deep cleaning at its branch office in Swindon.
The money was donated to the fund by the Oakfield development, a new neighbourhood of 239 sustainable homes in east Swindon.
The community foundation’s fund has already raised £1.2m and distributed more than £1m through more than 200 grants to groups across the county.
The headsets will allow new volunteers to be mentored remotely while they gain experience of taking calls.
“The mentors listen into calls until the volunteers are ready to take their first step on their own,” said listening and publicity volunteer Maggie Gill.
“Typically, that was with an extra handset but obviously we can’t do that under distancing rules so the headsets have enabled the new volunteers to continue to have that important support while talking to callers. The grant has meant that we can take on new recruits and continue to increase the number of people who are there to listen to calls.”
The charity has seen a 22 percent year-on-year rise in calls and emails despite a number of volunteers who are shielding at home. But a steady flow of new applicants has meant it has maintained a roster of 120 volunteers.
Mrs Gill said: “We continue to be really busy, but we have managed to open more shifts, which is brilliant. We’ve introduced some working from home to handle emails, securely and confidentially of course.
“We’ve completed two lots of training remotely and are just about to start our third session this month for 16 more volunteers. The headsets will help us cover the new volunteers and their mentors and we’ve been able to offer a headset to the rest of the branch, thanks to Wiltshire Community Foundation.
“The great thing is the headsets really improve the quality of what you can hear from the caller. They are a terrific piece of kit making a real improved difference for us.”
Volunteers, who come from all over Swindon and Wiltshire, staff the phones at the Curtis Street branch, ready to take calls from anywhere in the UK as the national number allocates each caller to whichever line is free. No matter the problem being shared with them, the volunteers are trained to listen, not judge - and never give advice.
“We still get a range of conversations from people who are in distress, but we have definitely seen an increase in emails because it isn’t always easy to talk privately over the phone and emails help people marshal their thoughts.,” said Mrs Gill.
“Over the last couple of weeks, we have noticed more people are referring to covid again and that is worrying in a way because it is indicative of being in the third lockdown.
"It is miserable, it’s winter and harder to get out and about. Although the vaccine is on the horizon, it can be tough when you are hunkered down and can’t see an end to it.”
Support from the community foundation and the National Lottery has helped make up for almost a year of lost fundraising, including having to close its charity shop in Swindon. One of the challenges has been continuing the charity’s ability to raise awareness that they are still a safe place to talk.
Volunteers have been dropping leaflets at food banks, supermarkets and Great Western Hospital but it is still concerned about spreading its message throughout the year.
Mrs Gill said: “Outreach for us is important. We can’t meet callers face to face if they are passing and want to drop in and talk. We’ve not had the big events we usually attend, like Swindon Pride, and we haven’t been able to go out to schools to do talks. We’ve had to strip out all our publicity costs from the start of the new financial year.
“But we have been so fortunate to have had this funding from Wiltshire Community Foundation, it is making a huge difference to us.”
Wiltshire Community Foundation joint chief executive Fiona Oliver said: “The Swindon and District Samaritans have seen their workload rise by a fifth as the pandemic takes its toll on people, many of whom were already in difficult situations.
"We are delighted our grant is helping it to train new volunteers and that it will still be there for those in distress.
“Groups like this have seen their ability to fundraise badly affected over the last year and that could threaten their future. That’s why our fund is just as important now as it was when we launched it last March.”
The Samaritans are available to call free on 116123 or can be emailed at jo@Samaritans.org.
To donate to the Wiltshire and Swindon Coronavirus Response and Recovery Fund or to find out how to apply for a grant, go to wiltshirecf.org.uk