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About A Week: Chad Varah - A Man Born To Serve

Peter Hinchliffe pays tribute to an outstanding humanitarian.

A telephone rings in the middle of the night in a shabby room in an industrial town in England.

It is answered immediately by a reassuringly calm voice. "Samaritans, can I help you."

Tears. A distraught voice. Someone deeply distressed. Ready to end it all.

A conversation begins. The Samaritan does most of the listening. A sad, sad story is told.

Thirty minutes go by. An hour…

No more tears now. No advice has been offered by the Samaritan, but the caller is calmer, aware that there is someone with the time and patience to listen to his or her troubles.

The Samaritan movement was founded by an Anglican vicar, Chad Varah, one of the most outstanding Englishmen of his era. It began in London in 1953 and spread throughout the world.

Millions of people have been brought back from the brink of suicide by being able to unburden their troubles and feelings on another human being.

Hundreds of thousands of telephone or face-to-face encounters between the troubled and those willing to listen take place day and night, year after year, in 202 Samaritan offices in the United Kingdom. These offices are manned by some 16,000 volunteers.

The U.K. Samaritans movement led on to Befrienders Worldwide. Some 31,000 volunteers man centers in around 40 countries in a bid to reduce suicide.

An estimated 1 million people kill themselves every year. Many would not do so if only they had someone to talk to.

Rev. Varah was born in the village of Barton-on-Humber on Nov. 12, 1911. Coincidentally, another great Englishman who brought huge benefits to the world lived in that same small village centuries earlier: John Harrison built clocks that enabled reliable navigation and the opening up of international trading routes.

Rev. Varah obtained a degree in philosophy, politics and economics from Keble College, Oxford. He was a talented linguist and spoke a number of languages.

He was persuaded by his godfather, an Archbishop, to enter the Anglican ministry. He served in Lincolnshire, Cumbria and Lancashire before moving on to London.

During the 1950s, in his spare time, he was a scriptwriter and visualizer for the children's comics, Eagle, Girl, Robin and Swift. He was one of those who launched the thrilling and adventurous career of cartoon spaceman Dan Dare.

In 1935, Rev. Varah conducted his first funeral, as an assistant curate, that of a 13-year-old girl who had taken her own life. She thought she was seriously ill with venereal disease and could not face the prospect of a slow, painful and shameful death. In fact, she had just started to menstruate.

Rev. Varah vowed at the girl's graveside to devote himself to helping other people overcome the sort of isolation and ignorance that had caused the girl to commit suicide.

In the early 1950s three suicides a day were being recorded in Greater London. Rev. Varah felt that doctors and social workers were not meeting the needs of those at the end of their tether. He thought education and access to emotional support was needed.

He was an early advocate of sex education for young people, and was labeled a "dirty old man" for his concern.

He recruited lay members of his parish to counsel those who were finding life too heavy a burden to bear.

Thus the first Samaritans volunteers were assembled. On Feb. 2, 1954, they became an independent organization, left by Rev. Varah to get on with the job of coming to the aid of the suicidal. He maintained strong links with the Samaritans down the years, but from the start he set things up so that the organization could flourish without him.

Rev. Varah was a consultant for the sex education magazine Forum. In 1987 the HIV/AIDS charity Terrence Higgins Trust made him its patron, a role he held until 1999.

Chad Varah died last year at the age of 95. Tributes poured in, praising his wonderful life.

The Prince of Wales, who is patron of the Samaritans, said, "Chad Varah was an utterly remarkable man who founded an organization which has saved the lives of countless people since 1953.

"He was an outstanding humanitarian and a great Briton."

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said, "Chad Varah made a unique contribution to the life of our whole society, changing attitudes to suicide and bringing a distinctively pastoral and wholly nonjudgmental approach to people in need."

The Samaritans, on their Web site, say, "We don't know when you might need us. That's why we're open 24 hours a day.

"Samaritans provides confidential nonjudgmental emotional support for people who are experiencing feelings of distress or despair, including those which could lead to suicide.

"Whatever you're going through, whether it's big or small, don't bottle it up. We are here for you if you're worried about something, feel upset or confused, or just want to talk to someone.

"We offer our service by telephone, e-mail, letter and face to face in most of our branches."

The Samaritans are always on the lookout for new volunteers to carry on the life-saving work initiated by Rev. Varah. As a former member for some 10 years of his voluntary "army," I can vouch for the fact that being a Samaritan is one of the best ways of convincing yourself that you are of some use to the world.

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