Samaritans Celebrate Their Fortieth Birthday

Published in Woonsocket Call on January 22, 2017

In 2001, Denise Panichas took the temporary job as executive director of The Samaritans of Rhode Island, only expecting to stay at the helm for six week. Looking back over the last 16 years the Woonsocket resident clearly sees the hook that has kept her in her very demanding job.

“After my arrival people I knew, from all walks of life, came up to me sharing their personal stories of losing a loved one to suicide or being a caregiver to a person with physical or behavioral problems,” says Panichas. “My decision to stay in my temporary position for just one week, turned into two weeks and then time just quickly flew by,” she says, noting that her empathy grew daily with each encounter with Rhode Islanders who suffered the tragic loss of a loved one.

Surviving the Financial Storm

Running a small statewide nonprofit is not as easy as one thinks, notes Panichas, as she reflected on the uncontrollable obstacles she had to overcome to keep The Samaritans, the state’s only nonprofit group exclusively dedicated to suicide prevention and education, financially afloat.

Panichas watched her donations dry up as the America’s economy spiraled out of control during the 2008 financial crisis, some calling it the nation’s worst the 1930’s Great Depression. Before that, at the state-level, The Samaritans along with many of Rhode Island’s nonprofits, lost funding when the United Way of Rhode Island eliminated member agencies, cutting assistance to many nonprofit groups. “The Samaritans lost over $50,000 from these cuts,” says Panichas, stressing that that downsizing and redirected fundraising efforts to target individual contributors and special event fundraisers (“Cross the Bridge to Hope” at the Pell Bridge Run) brought in needed funds into the nonprofit’s coffers to man the hotlines and its grief support group.

Today, 17 percent of The Samaritan’s funding comes from state and local grants, the rest coming from foundation, individual, corporate and special event contributions. Eighty one percent of its fundraising dollars is allocated to program, she says.

But, Panichas now sees better times for The Samaritans as she begins organizing events and programs that will take place in the upcoming months to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of The Samaritans. “In February, we are planning to release the details about the free programs and special events that will serve as our fundraisers,” she says.

Panichas and her board of 12 community leaders, from six Rhode Island communities and nearby Massachusetts, are also in discussion with the Preservation Society of Pawtucket to purchase the Baker-Hanley House, one of the City’s oldest houses, on Park Place, to serve as its first owned headquarters. The agency is planning a “Peace Garden” at the side of the historic structure to allow visitors to mediate and reflect on loved ones they have lost through suicide. .

Over forty years, The Samaritans have worked hard to bring the topic of suicide out of the closet and into public discussion, say Meredith Hampton, president of The Samaritan’s who has served on its board for over 15 years. “We have persevered and gained public support who have rallied behind our efforts,” she says.

Like Panichas, Hampton, a Cranston resident who serves as senior project manager for Norwood, Massachusetts-based Cramer Production Company, a marketing and communications firm, is thrilled that her nonprofit is celebrating its ruby anniversary of providing programs and services to the Rhode Island community. Hampton notes that owning a building will “put a face to the organization” and she expects the capital campaign to be announced in a couple of months.

Reaching out to Rhode Island’s Lonely

“Feeling low with nowhere to turn” noted songwriter Bill Withers says is a public service announcement regularly played, there is a place to call – The Samaritans – where trained volunteers “are there to listen.” Incorporated in 1977, the Pawtucket-based nonprofit program is dedicated to reducing the occurrence of suicide by befriending the despairing and lonely throughout the state’s 39 cities and towns.

Since the inception, The Samaritans has received more than 550,000 calls and trained more 1,355 volunteers to answer its confidential and anonymous Hotline/Listening Lines.

With the first Samaritan branch started in England in 1953, independent Samaritan branches can now be found in more than 40 countries of the world. “Samaritans, can I help you?” is quietly spoken into the phone across the world in a multilingual chorus of voices,” notes its web site.

The communication-based program teaches volunteers to effectively listen to people who are in crisis, says Panichas, noting that conversations are free, confidential and, most importantly, anonymous.

A rigorous 21-hour training program teaches volunteers to listen to callers without expressing personal judgments or opinions. Panichas said that the listening techniques called “befriending,” calls for 90 percent listening and 10 percent talking.
“Suicide is considered a missed opportunity in prevention,” says Panichas. She stresses, “If you are doing all the talking there is a very chance that you will miss what is really bothering the hopeless caller.”

Panichas noted in 2016 more than 5,491 calls were logged into The Samaritans’ Listening Line, a great resource for caregivers and older Rhode Islanders. She estimates that 997 came from seniors.

In 2016, The Samaritans hosted over 108,305 visitors to its website, many going to caregiver information. The nonprofit’s website received 1,487,691 hits and 233,336 pages were viewed. Panichas believes that the increased website visits are due to the “growing problem of suicide and our nonprofit group’s effective use of social media.”

Other services include a peer-to-peer grief Safe Place Support Group for those left behind by suicide as well as community education programs.

The Samaritans can be the gateway to care or a “compassionate nonjudgmental voice on the other end of the line,” Panichas notes. “It doesn’t matter what your problem is, be it depression, suicidal thoughts, seeking resources for mental health services in the community or being lonely or just needing to talk, our volunteers are there to listen.”

Rhode Island’s Art Community Supports Program and Services

In December 2011, The Samaritans began a social venture, by relocating to the City of Pawtucket’s 307 acre Arts & Entertainment District. According to Panichas, a built out professional gallery allowed her to open the Forget-Me-Not Gallery and Community Education Center. Through networking and partnerships with Rhode Island’s fine arts and crafts community, “we are able to foster hope, inspiration and commemoration of the lives of our loved ones who have fallen victim to suicide,” she says.

“Every piece of art sold or every gift bought through our gift shop provides needed funded for our programs and also contributes to Rhode Island’s state artistic small business economy,” says Panichas.

Eric Auger of Pawtucket and co-owner of Ten31 Productions also in Pawtucket, volunteers his time and talent in curating gallery shows throughout the year, says Panichas, noting that there have been more than two dozen exhibits, performances and education programs since 2011.

At the Forget-Me-Not Gallery, no sales taxes are charged on one-of-a-kind pieces of art work. The gallery also is a retail site for Rhode Island-based Alex and Ani jewelry and other giftware.

For those seeking to financially support the programs of The Samaritans, its Gallery and Education Center is available to rent for special events, meetings and other types of occasions. For information on gallery rental, call the Samaritans business line at 401-721-5220; or go to http://www.samaritansri.org.

Need to Talk? Call a volunteer at The Samaritans. Call 401.272.4044 or toll free in RI (1-800) 365-4044.

For persons interested in more information about suicide emergencies, The Samaritans website, http://www.samaritansri.org, has an emergency checklist as well as information by city and town including Blackstone Valley communities from Pawtucket to Woonsocket.

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