Changing lives: science and the Samaritans

Feed at the Science Museum shines a light on what communication really means...

By: Clare Howdle,   4 minutes


Stranger Collective writer Laura Watkins takes a Feed at the Science Museum and finds out what communication really means…

The Science Museum’s latest exhibition, Information Age, has had a lot of good press. The Queen visited it, opened it and even marked the occasion by tweeting about it. That for me was reason enough to see what the fuss was about.

Packed onto the second floor of the museum are more than 800 objects, celebrating over 200 years of information and telecommunication networks, including the latest mobile and satellite technology, and what was once the most powerful radio transmitter in the world.

You’ll find all the greats vying for your attention, from the early pioneers of modern communication to scientists, artists, poets and philosophers. But as I made my way past the 6m-high aerial tuning inductor, became mesmerised by the interactive light beacons and doffed my hat to Alexander Graham Bell, one thing captured my attention above everything else.

In a dark corner of the room, far from the digital displays and children doing their best to break them, is a little section on the work of the Samaritans. No high-res screens, no buttons to twiddle, just a couple of headsets for you to listen to some of the stories of people who owe their lives to the service.

In the words of the curator, the exhibition aims “to challenge the idea that innovation only happens with men working in closeted labs…it’s down to teams of people and collaborations, and most importantly that users change technology by how they use it.” Established by Rev. Chad Varah, an Anglican Priest in 1953, the Samaritans heralded a new use of the telephone, providing the world’s first crisis hotline “to befriend the suicidal and despairing”. As he explained, “I have found that a chat, a kind word and some good advice from an outsider can often save a person’s life.”

“I have found that a chat, a kind word and some good advice from an outsider can often save a person’s life.”

I can’t think of a better example of the use of communication than providing one human with the means to save another. As one Samaritan described, “the phone provides a very special way of communicating. A connection but also a distance.” “Sometimes the silence lasts for a few moments, others a few minutes.” But by simply being there at the end of the phone, each Samaritan provides a complete stranger with a contact, helping them reconnect with the world”. So in spite of all the amazing innovations and feats of human endeavor within the exhibition, for me the work of the Samaritans was the most impressive by far.

Having listened to some of the stories, I wanted to find out more, so I quizzed a friend who has spent many years working as a Samaritan. This is her perspective of what it’s like to be at the end of what has been called “a 999 for the suicidal”.

Why did you join the Samaritans?

I was inspired to become a Samaritan by someone I worked with who was also a volunteer. One of our young staff drowned when he was at a party on the Marchioness Thames Riverboat, which collided with another boat and sank. The woman who inspired me was able to offer help to the survivors through the Samaritans. At the funeral of the young man who died (he was 19), I made a promise to myself and to the others around me to ‘do something’.  I had also been looking after an ex-boyfriend who was an alcoholic and thought ‘If I can help him, I can help others too’.

What was the environment like?

I volunteered at the Central London branch in Soho. Each volunteer sat in a booth, in a room of about 16 booths. The room was rather messy and homely; each booth had notices all over it with useful telephone numbers, which were covered with doodles, probably made during the long hours of a Nightwatch. We could be chatting and then the phone would ring, and the room would fall silent, and requests like ‘do you want some tea’ were mimed. Even if nine volunteers were on calls simultaneously, the room was pretty silent – a key ability of a Samaritan is to be able to listen.

What qualities do you need to be a Samaritan?

Patience. Kindness. Natural empathy. Strength of character. The ability to be a team member and share some very personal stuff with other Samaritans, and the ability to listen without judgment. Having excellent emotional antennae and not being scared to talk about death, and dying.

How and why does it make a difference?

How: Because Samaritans are there for those who cannot tell anyone else, have told everyone else and then given up, or have been given up on.

Why: Some people need the Samaritans on a life-long basis. When I left in 2005, there were some of the same callers as when I joined 15 years earlier in 1990.

What did your experience teach you about yourself and other people?

That I can have unexpected depths of kindness and patience with total strangers. That Samaritans are callers on a good day. I used the service myself once or twice when I was pretty unhappy.

Would you recommend it?

Wholeheartedly, but it doesn’t suit everyone of course. There is a pretty intense preparation period, where you really have to question yourself and your beliefs, and what baggage you may bring to a contact with a caller.

What was the most rewarding thing about your experience?

Two moments stand out. The very rare times that we thought that someone was actively committing suicide on the other end of the phone, with no idea who they were and where they lived. If they made a decision to ask for an ambulance it felt like a ‘punch the air’ moment. The other one was being a Samaritan volunteer in the days following 9/11, outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, where Americans congregated to be together to find out information or too mourn lost or missing relations. Months later, we each got a lapel pin with a US/Union Jack badge, which I am very proud of.

Find out more about volunteering for the Samaritans.


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