Founded in 1977, The Samaritans on Cape Cod and the Islands is a non-denominational, non-profit volunteer organization whose mission is to provide emotional support to those who are lonely, depressed, or suicidal.
Samaritan volunteers provide non-judgmental active listening to callers in need on our Crisis Lines, older adults in our Senior Outreach program, suicide loss survivors in our Safe Place support groups, and in our A Caring Connection program and A Second Chance program for those who have attempted suicide and their families. In the 42 years since our founding, we have trained over 900 Samaritan volunteers at our center in Falmouth and answered more than 575,000 phone calls from people in need.
As members of the oldest and largest suicide prevention network in the world, we encourage our community to talk openly about suicide in order to best help and provide hope to those in need.
The Samaritans on Cape Cod and the Islands story begins in an unlikely place – London, England – where the first Samaritans branch opened and indeed the world’s first telephone support line came to fruition in November 1953.
Founded by Chad Varah, an Anglican priest, the idea for the Samaritans helpline was inspired by Chad’s first act as a priest when he performed the burial ceremony for a fourteen year old girl. After having experienced her first period, and having no one to talk to about it, the young girl assumed she had contracted a sexually transmitted disease and ended her life. Distressed by the girl’s isolation and her decision to die by suicide, Chad hoped the crisis lines he would begin years later would provide a different choice to others in need.
In the summer of 1953, circumstances aligned so that Chad could see his idea through and his crisis lines were born. While advertising the new service, it was a London newspaper that coined the phrase “Telephone Good Samaritans.” And despite Chad’s new organization not being religious in nature, the term Samaritans was quickly adopted.
Initially Chad, who was also a registered counselor, was the only person to counsel people in his office either in person or on the crisis lines. But eventually the publicity which helped promote the crisis lines also brought calls from people who wanted to help. In the beginning Chad did not believe these volunteers would be able to truly assist since they were not trained professionals, so he asked for them to simply sit in the waiting room with those in need. To his great surprise, it quickly became evident that his new volunteers were absolutely vital.
We are not a problem-oriented organization. We are not here to solve problems. We are not here to give advice. We are not here to refer people to experts. We are here to suffer with people and let them go away feeling better. We feel at the best of times that we have really been human. I find people all over the world who say, “This is the most important thing I do in my life.”
Chad learned his volunteers were not giving advice while sitting with those in need in the waiting room. Instead the volunteers simply listened with empathy. And after people unburdened themselves, they seemed to feel better, felt no need to see the minister, and went on their way. To his great surprise, Chad realized that people who are despondent, depressed, lonely, or suicidal did not always need professional help – just a caring person to listen. Thus, a few months later, Chad turned over the primary responsibility of caring for those in crisis to his volunteers.
As a young writer, Monica Dickens, the great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens, asked to interview Chad Varah to write about the Samaritan movement. He told her the only way she could truly understand the Samaritan approach was to take the training classes and volunteer on the phone lines. She did so and, like her writing, being a Samaritan quickly became her life’s calling. When she eventually married Commander Roy Stratton of the U.S .Navy and moved to America, Monica opened the first Samaritan center in the United States in Boston in April 1974. After moving to Falmouth, she founded The Samaritans on Cape Cod and the Islands in November 1977.
In 1979, Monica worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to add the now iconic “Desperate?” signs that are on both sides of the Bourne and Sagamore bridges leading to Cape Cod. And in the early 1980’s, she was instrumental in helping to erect steel barriers, known as suicide-prevention barriers, along each bridge. Prior to the installation of the 12-foot-high bars, 58 people had jumped to their deaths. Since the barriers have been installed, suicides from the bridges have been virtually eliminated.
Because of the signs on the Bourne and Sagamore bridges we are most well-known on the Cape and Islands for our crisis lines. But our staff and volunteers provide numerous additional services within the community, including educational outreach programming, our Senior Outreach program, and our Safe Place support groups.
To learn more about the work we do on the Cape and Islands, please read our programs page or check out the videos below for a fantastic overview provided by our Executive Director, Stephanie Kelly:
Today Samaritan crisis lines, sometimes under the umbrella organization of Befrienders Worldwide, are found in over 400 centers in 42 countries worldwide. Eight Samaritan centers are in the United States in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Rhode Island. Callers in need can call any center they wish no matter where they may live.
Although most of the centers worldwide operate independently, as do all of the centers in America, Samaritan volunteers around the world are united in their commitment to provide non-judgmental active listening, known as befriending, to those in need.