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Monday, November 8, 2010

Samaritans Befrienders York conference summary by Melanie, regional co-ord south asia

The York Conference.-23rd – 26th September 2010.

York is a beautiful city and the University of York is set in a picturesque part of its suburb with lakes and sprawling parklands amidst impressive buildings of the University. The organizers of the conference had seen to every detail of the 3 day conference and each delegate was accorded a very warm welcome. The accommodation provided was clean and comfortable with more than adequate heating and hot water. Liz and some of the members of the BW steering group were there to welcome me with hugs! As prearranged we met at a hall to discuss matters pertaining to BW and the way forward. It was lovely meeting up with all ten members and Vija. I was delighted to meet the out going south Asia coordinator, Mallika who had helped me no end during these past months. She is a lively bubbly person who calls a spade a spade and I felt as if I had known her all my life. She has that effect on people.
Over a thousand delegates and invitees from 300 branches worldwide were present making the event a memorable one.
The international training team gave an informal presentation to what we could expect from the Training Event scheduled for the whole of the next day. Meeting volunteers from different countries and different cultures and colours was an experience in itself. The presentation was lively and fun with the team distributing mini musical instruments of every kind and hue and the noise we made was certainly not harmonious!
The training event proper got underway on Friday 24th. The theme chosen for the event was ‘Recruitment and Retention of volunteers’. The selected resource materials were from a range of BW centres. ‘It offered a mix of materials and some extracts from ideas gathered from around the world.’
The contribution from Mawanella branch for this event sent to the head office compiled by Hema and Anula was very beneficial and was chosen as the contribution from Sri Lanka. We thank Hema and Anula for their hard work and job well done and all other centres that sent in their well prepared contributions as well. The contribution from the Indian centres for ‘Retention Material’ was selected from Pondicherry Maitreyi centre. I found the lay out original and easy to retain. I have requested for the material used for this programme and hope to get it soon to share amongst all the branches. Sabrina and Brian from Colombo attended the conference as well and we thoroughly enjoyed this programme conducted by trainers from 4 BW countries who made it interesting, absorbing and fun.
That evening at 8pm was the opening of the plenary in the central hall. To see this massive hall packed to its capacity with volunteers from around the world was something I would never forget. All the more relevant as we got into conversation with total strangers who spoke the ‘same language’ felt awesome. To feel akin to the hundreds around you is a feeling I had never felt before. Then Sophie Andrews, Chair of Samaritans welcomed us to this 50th Annual conference in York. The key note address was given so convincingly by Simon Weston who shared his personal story ‘soldiering on’. A story of how he overcame the tremendous trauma of being severely burned and yet with his face disfigured beyond recognition he strove on with the Samaritans playing a major role to come out of his dilemma to conquer the raging battle inside whether to end his life or not.
Sunday 25th- the second plenary began with Sophie speaking on ‘Caller Care, the challenge of making ourselves relevant and accessible’ to say she had a certain presence is putting it mildly. She was my favorite speaker. She could turn any subject she spoke on, into one so inspiring with dots of humour along the way! The rest of the conference continued with seminars held at different venues in the vast and beautifully laid out grounds. One set of seminars featured the experiences and opinions of past and current callers and another on the big projects underway that will help respond to callers more effectively. By far the most soul searching seminar was related by Sophie on her own horrific life where she was sexually abused by her foster father from the time she reached puberty. Her book ‘Scarred’ gives us volunteers an insight into the despair a child feels when faced with this unimaginable horror. There again the Samaritans played a pivotal role in rebuilding her distraught life into one with a will to live on. At the point when Sophie felt that death was the only way out a Samaritan telephone number pasted on a call box turned out to be her redeemer in the way of a ‘soft kindly voice asking her if she would like to come and meet them?’ This caring voice turned her world completely as she became a caller at Samaritans. Today Sophie is the Chair of Samaritans. Can we remind ourselves again to the importance of the tone of voice we use when speaking to our callers? What would have happened to her if the volunteer at the end of the line sounded uncaring?
Another moving story was ‘Michael’s story’- a powerful insight into the loss of a child and how Samaritans helped to cope with the pain and to gradually find the will to move on.
5.30pm. the atmosphere around the exhibition stands was like a Sunday Pola! (market place) there were about 30 stalls manned by Samaritan branches. I was especially interested in reading the booklets on ‘the internet and children- What’s the problem?’ ‘What we all need to know to ‘protect our children from sexual abuse. ‘What is self harm?’ ‘Common misconceptions on this subject.’ Other stalls had colorful photographs depicting various fund raisers, ‘Walk for Samaritans’ and ideas on how to get funding for Samaritans. I have left the best for last! The International stall taking centre stage which was handled with friendly efficiency by Joan our out going twinning coordinator and her husband Tony. Our grateful thanks expressed to Anura for delivering yet another gorgeous Ceylon stone bracelet and the equally gorgeous pearl necklace from the Indian centres to be part of the annual raffle draw. Our warmest thanks to Lilamani for the generous gift of specially designed canisters of tea which sold like hot cakes! A most attractive display of handy crafts and other gifts that soon caught the eye of other volunteers were given by our international BW members. The funds collected goes towards the granting of bursaries at the York conference for our BW members when ever possible. The incoming twinning coordinator, Les Rowley is as helpful and friendly as Joan and we look forward to working together.
Sunday 26th –The final day of the conference. By which time we had made so many friends. Exchanged email addresses, telephone numbers and invitations to visit the respective countries! I followed another work shop that said ‘I hate role plays’ I was intrigued and interested to know what option there was to role plays. After the initial introduction we had to get into threes and one took the role of the befriender, the second the PV and the third the observer. It was simple really. Instead of a PV and the befriender having to act a given scenario (which at times is disturbing for a PV and hard to remember all the facts on the paper for the befriender) we acted a real life scenario. In this instance the PV spoke of the experiences at York and how it affected his/her personal life and the befriender listened and discussed other relevant details making it very real and easy to relate to. We could discuss this with our trainers and perhaps try it out at our next PV intake.
Interaction at meal time was a good ice breaker and conversations floored while enjoying the excellent food provided and served by the staff at every sitting. We were grateful to our past participants for having warned us of the bitterly cold winds that seem to pierce our ears and freeze our bodies. Wearing layers of warm clothing did not suffice and we soon realized that running to our meetings or seminars was the best remedy to fight the cold weather! That may be the reason we managed to drop the kilos collected at meal time and coffee breaks!!
The closing plenary ‘Something inside so strong’ delivered again by Sophie Andrews where she stressed on the strong feelings we each have to go forward but to be aware of becoming so familiar with our befriending that it sometimes become robotic! To explain this more clearly she and two other volunteers gave an excellent demonstration on ‘leader speaking to a volunteer who was worried if she had done a good befriending’. ‘Volunteer befriending a distressed caller’. ‘Volunteer befriending a telephone caller.’
We were given a true insight as to what a conversation feels like devoid of feelings and care. It was hilarious and the thousand three hundred delegates roared with laughter. Sophie expressed her thanks to each Samaritan in the UK and Ireland for their commitment. She made special mention of the close relationship Samaritans have with BW and she thanked all the volunteers spread all over the world for their contribution and encouraged us to continue befriending those in need.

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