‘A lot of our Christmas volunteers have been through really difficult periods and want to pay it forward’

Hundreds of people are giving their time over the holiday period to support those in crisis, both in person and on helplines

“It’s easy for people to forget how lonely Christmas can be, or how stressful it can be if you are surrounded by family you don’t have the best relationship with,” says Robert Foley, a trainee psychotherapist who will be working on the 50808 text platform over the Christmas period.

Foley says the text service has been busier in the days before Christmas, with mostly young people messaging about difficulties they are facing. “We get the full range of people contacting us – from someone with suicidal thoughts to those feeling sad and needing the space to talk it through and explore their feelings.”

It’s rare not to have a shift when you hear from a number of people who are at risk of ending their lives, says Foley. “Our job is to try and de-escalate [the situation] to get them to have a safety plan or to reach out to the emergencies services,” he says.

Although working on a helpline over Christmas may sound like a bleak and depressing thing to do, Foley says it can be “inspiring” to see how people can come up with their own resources to cope with their difficulties. “We’re non-directive and try to identify skills they already have and how they have coped with these situations in the past. It’s about helping people move from an emotionally hot moment to a calm moment.”

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Foley, who works as a supervisor of volunteers, says he is also impressed by the generosity of volunteers giving up their time. “A lot of our volunteers have been through really difficult periods in their own lives and they want to pay [it] forward and help others who are struggling.”

Our job is to try and ease their stress and show them that there is a light at the end of the tunnel

Ahmed Mayouf and Aziz Ahmed, who live in Direct Provision hotels in the Dublin area, may not seem like typical volunteers for the South Dublin Volunteer Centre but these two young men will be working shifts at the refugee transit hub at Citywest Convention Centre over Christmas. Mayouf came to Ireland about six months ago and spent a few nights in the transit hub at Citywest before moving to Dublin city centre. “Our job is to show the [new arrivals] around the facility – where they register, the accommodation area and the departure area where the buses come to take them to their next place,” says Mayouf who lived in Dubai and then illegally in the UK before coming to Ireland. He received his work permit the week we met but his application for residency in Ireland hasn’t been processed yet.

“People need someone to talk to and I speak Arabic, French, English, a bit of German. We pick up the welcoming words in different languages and when we greet people in their own language, it brings a big smile to their faces,” he says. “People who come from war [zones] are scared and terrified. Our job is to try and ease their stress and show them that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I feel that I can spread positivity because I’ve been in their shoes.”

Ahmed left his native Somalia as a teenager and has lived in Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and Sweden before coming to Ireland, seeking asylum. He volunteers at the Citywest transit hub three days a week. “I also volunteer with the Muslim Sisters of Ireland in the city centre and with a homeless organisation,” says Ahmed, who speaks Arabic, Somali, English, Spanish and some Swedish. Volunteering, he says, is “a good way of giving back to society”.

We get calls from children in crisis. Some will have experienced physical or verbal abuse from their parents. Others have been bullied. Some will have issues with their mental health or bereavement

“After the coronavirus [pandemic] and now the war in Ukraine, everyone should take part and contribute what they can,” says Ahmed who also came to Ireland about six months ago. He is studying social policy in Crumlin College. He also received his work permit recently. The South Dublin Volunteer Centre is asking the public to bring new or unused hats and gloves to give as presents to adults in the transit hub. The St Stephen’s Green Trust has donated presents for any children who will be there on Christmas Day.

Jennifer Stanbridge will work on the Childline helpline over Christmas. “We get calls from children in crisis. Some will have experienced physical or verbal abuse from their parents. Others have been bullied. Some will have issues with their mental health and self-esteem while others will have experienced bereaved and loss and feel isolated at Christmas time,” she says.

While some children phone Childline, a lot of the contact is web-based live chat. “Our main role is to be an active listener: it’s very powerful for a child to be listened to. Children will tell us their feelings and thoughts and what’s going on for them. We encourage them to identify someone who they can reach out to for help.

“We never tell a child what to do but if the child asks us for help and if it’s necessary, we’ll engage with the child and family agency and the gardaí,” she says. Calls can be 15-20 minutes to an hour. “After an hour, we encourage the child to have a break and call us back,” she says.

It can bring perspective into your own life and remind us all that within the chaos of Christmas, some people are having a difficult time and it’s important to support them

The Pieta House crisis helpline offers 24/7 support from trained therapists all year. Clare McKim, the crisis helpline therapy services manager, says they expect to be busy over Christmas, with calls already on the increase this year. “Our therapists are the holders of hope for people in crisis. We offer emotional and non-judgemental support. The change in routine over Christmas can impact on people’s mental health with more alcohol and more social situations. Complex family dynamics can also exacerbate mental health difficulties for those who don’t have access to their usual support services over Christmas,” she says.

Twenty-six therapists at Pieta House will work shorter shifts – four-hour shifts instead of eight hours – over the festive period. “The helpline is remote now, which makes it easier. It’s actually a very rewarding experience to support someone in crisis. It can bring perspective into your own life and remind us all that within the chaos of Christmas, some people are having a difficult time and it’s important to support them.”

McKim says: “we get many repeat callers but we also hear from people who call to say thank you which is heart-warming. Some call to say if it wasn’t for speaking to someone on the helpline last Christmas, I wouldn’t be here today.”

For more information about giving back and volunteering, see weact.ie/volunteer