Meg’s “other” career—the one that caught her attention back when she was in secondary school—has become her passion in retirement. If you ring Samaritans’ help line on a Friday evening, she might be the one at the other end, ready to listen. Meg also trains volunteers, and has a message for anyone considering volunteering:
“You probably don’t realise or value the skills that you’ve got. Now’s the time in your life when you really can use those skills to enrich other people’s lives. And doing that will actually enrich your life, and stop you wondering if this has all been worthwhile.”
Forty years on, Meg is still at the other end of the phone when people ring Samaritans at their lowest. She’s taken breaks from volunteering during her life as a teacher, mother, and HR manager. But she always comes back to the telephone help line.
“It chose me, really,” Meg explained. “I remember when I was at secondary school in Wellington, the Samaritans branch in Wellington opened. I thought, ‘That’s something I’d like to do when I’m old enough.’ And so I did.”
She began on the phones in 1981. Meg still spends 2 hours on call each Friday, but her role has expanded in retirement. She also runs the volunteer training and serves as board chair of the Rotorua-Hawke’s Bay centre. All up, that averages about 20 hours of volunteering a week.
The spark Meg felt when she first learned about Samaritans has grown as she’s seen first hand how valuable it is—not just to those it serves in the community, but to the volunteers themselves.
The help line receives about 30,000 calls a year, 24-7, from people from all walks of life. Not all are in crisis, although the training covers common topics such as suicide, grief, mental illness and relationships. Mental illness flavours most conversations.
“People ring us because they’re not feeling so good. Actually,” Meg said on second thought, “some people ring us because they’re happy. That’s because it happens so rarely in their lives they want to share it with somebody.”
A two-hour shift may include a couple of hang-ups (often people need more courage to talk), or a 13-year-old who’s just been dumped (they don’t have much life experience and are vulnerable). Meg usually fields about 8 calls on a Friday evening.
Some ring once; others find the support they receive so critical that they become regulars.
“One person died last year and we went to his funeral,” Meg said. “He’d been a caller almost all his life. So we develop these long, long-term relationships with these people who are sort of lonely and at the margins of society. I find it really satisfying to work with them.”
The volunteers come from various walks of life, but Meg said that human compassion is a characteristic they all share.
“I think any community is judged by the way it manages its most vulnerable people,” she said.
Some volunteers are students, gaining experience for careers in social work or counselling. Others are retirees who have a wealth of life experience and time to offer. And plenty of Samaritans’ volunteers are in their middle years.
“[They’re] starting to discover that life, the universe and everything isn’t entirely about building a career and earning money,” Meg said. “You get to that stage in your career when you think, ‘Is that really what I’m here for? Is this what it’s all about?’ We get a lot of people who volunteer at that stage too.”
Meg values the opportunities to have contact with people who she’d never know otherwise, and to impact the lives of people even further afield.
“I feel that if I train as many Samaritans as possible, and they live in the communities they serve, that I’m adding richness and depth to the resilience of that community,” she said. “That’s why I really like training Hawke’s Bay people; I know they’re going to be adding their skills to the community even if they don’t stay on the phones like I have.”
She gets a lot of satisfaction from seeing the growth in volunteers’ own lives as they complete training and gain experience.
“I get, particularly from men, ‘This has such made such a huge change in my life and my relationships with my children,’ or ‘my relationship with my partner,’” Meg said. The “real listening skills, to really engage with people” help volunteers not just during their time on the phones, but in their day-to-day interactions.
Even though the calls require a fair degree of patience, Meg said that volunteers who are new to the role often express to her what a privilege it is that people are trusting them with their stories—and, she said, “you get all sorts of stories.”
There are about 10 volunteers in the Hawke’s Bay, all working from home. Other volunteers work around the country. Samaritans can always use more, Meg said; the need for their services is not going away.
“I look at the younger generation now and realise, we’ve raised a generation that’s got high anxiety, real worry, a sense of not being anchored. And I’m not sure how that happened,” Meg said. “But I know that generation needs a lot more support.”
As a Baby Boomer, Meg said she’s part of a golden generation that received many advantages: “Now that I’m retired, I feel really strongly that I should be giving that back to the community. The community’s given it to me, now I’m giving it back.”
Meg is particularly keen to impart this message to others who’ve “been there, done that.”
“You probably don’t realise or value the skills that you’ve got,” she said. “Now’s the time in your life when you really can use those skills to enrich other people’s lives. And doing that will actually enrich your life, and stop you wondering if this has all been worthwhile.”
Meg says that volunteers are often asked to contribute in areas that match their day job—but that’s not always what they want to do off the clock. She likes to turn that around.
How would you like to contribute as a volunteer? And what would you like to learn in the process?
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