Features, Highlights

‘Hello, Samaritans of Singapore, can I help you?’

FOR the past 40 years, Samaritans of Singapore or SOS has been providing confidential 24-hour emotional support to people in crisis, thinking of suicide or affected by suicide.

This kind of service was first launched in the United Kingdom in 1953 by the Rev Chad Varah, a young vicar who worked in a London parish.

A confidential emergency service for people in distress was what he felt was needed to address the problems he saw around him. At that time, suicide was still illegal in the UK, and many people who were in difficult situations and who felt suicidal were unable to talk to anyone about it without worrying about the consequences.

In Singapore, the idea of starting a telephone service for the despairing and suicidal was raised in the 1960s when the Republic was going through rapid urban change. As kampungs and communal living gave way to high-rise flats, there were concerns about increased stress and pace of living.

The Churches’ Counselling Centre (later renamed Counselling and Care Centre) was launched by the Methodist and Anglican Churches in 1966.

In 1967, the Churches’ Counselling Centre (CCC) planned to start a suicide prevention telephone service, and a SOS planning committee was formed in 1968 as a separate body from the CCC. SOS was subsequently established by the CCC and the founding director was the Rev Dr Gunnar J. Teilmann Jr, an American Methodist missionary pastor.

The Rev Dr Teilmann, who had pastored a few Methodist churches here before heading SOS, died in the United States in 1987.

Officially, the emergency telephone service began on Dec 1, 1969 in an office at the YWCA Centre in Outram Road. It moved to a new office in New Bridge Road in 1976, and again to Outram Park in 1989 before settling into its current Cantonment Close premises in 2001.

Here is an excellent opportunity for Methodists to give their service as SOS volunteers. In so doing, they show their love for their fellowmen and will touch lives.

SOS needs more volunteers even before the current economic crisis set in. This is a good time for Methodist volunteers to reach out to the depressed and others who need help. Just a kind word may save a life.

SOS began at a time when many homes did not have telephones. Indeed the founders were true visionaries who recognised not only the need to be there for those who had lost the will to live, but also the potential of using the telephone as a lifeline.

The SOS cause was also strongly supported by the churches even though the rule was clearly laid that no Samaritan was to take the opportunity in SOS to preach his or her religion. Support came in the form of money and equipment, church members as volunteers and many clergymen and women as trainers and leaders.

Founding Director Rev Dr Gunnar J. Teilmann Jr said in 1991: “Little did I dream that the Samaritans of Singapore would grow into the degree of strength, service and importance that it has attained …

“We ventured out into the unknown with faith. Eleven years have proven that the idea was good, that the time was right, that volunteers would respond, that people would call and receive help and together as a team, we found a method … of suicide prevention based on volunteers.”

Indeed, SOS volunteers or Samaritans are the unsung heroes who have sacrificed much to provide service to people in crisis. On top of having to undergo weekly pre-service training for nine months, they have to commit to weekly volunteer duties for at least two years upon completion of training, including one overnight duty per month and be on stand-by for emergencies once every six weeks.

Volunteers work anonymously, receiving little in the way of public acknowledgement or compensation. However, they acquire a sense of well-being from helping fellow human beings, and benefit from comprehensive training and one-to-one supervision. There are also opportunities for self-growth and learning in an environment of like-minded people. Many formed great friendships too.

Samaritans come from all walks of life – from various ethnic groups, cultures and religions. Their motivation for becoming a Samaritan varies. For some, it is the desire to do good; for others, it is out of a sense of gratitude for all that they have; for still others, it is a wish to be empathetic to others because they have experienced problems of their own.

Whatever their reasons, Samaritans share a common goal of “being there” for the distressed and the troubled, and especially of alleviating suicide in the community.

The Samaritans are the heart of the service. Their commitment has been especially instrumental in the establishment, success and growth of SOS.

Seemingly, the Samaritans are just ordinary people. Yet given their dedication and commitment, they are extraordinary in their selfless caring and unstinting giving of service. In their unobtrusive and anonymous way, they continue to make a difference in the lives of those who use the service.

To volunteer with SOS, call 6221-2122 or email pv@samaritans.org.sg

For more information, log on to www.samaritans.org.sg

Christine Wong is the Executive Director of Samaritans of Singapore (SOS). She was formerly the Executive Director of the Methodist Welfare Services of The Methodist Church in Singapore.