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.

Coping with the Holiday Blues

Published December 14, 2012, Pawtucket Times

Chestnuts roasting in your fireplace, green wreaths with red ribbons and brightly colored lights on decorated evergreen trees may elicit pleasant thoughts about the upcoming holidays; however, these thoughts might just tear open old wounds and bring to the surface bad memories, triggering stress, tension and even depression.

Not every family gathering with your parents, siblings, children, or grandchildren will be as serene as a Norman Rockwell painting. Of course, everyone has heard horror stories involving holiday family gatherings.

Surviving the Stress of Family Visits

Allison Bernier, LICSW, Associate Director of Wellness Employment and Network Services, at the Providence Center, notes that while the holiday season can be a time of family celebration, joy, and companionship for many people, it can also be a very stressful time. “High expectations, disrupted routines, dealing with loss or separation from loved ones, financial strain, and time constraints can all exacerbate anxiety and depression,” she says.

Bernier, who has 15 years under her belt employed as a Social Worker, who now provides one-to-one counseling to clients for the past six years, provides common sense tips as to how to survive stress that can be ignited by holiday family gathering.

Fighting holiday blues can be as simple as being prepared for family conflicts and having a specific plan to handle the uncomfortable emotions that may arise, notes Bernier. Creating a list of “potential issues” and “role playing how you will react with people you trust” can be effective ways to survive difficulties that might occur, she says.

“It is okay to know that you don’t have to be happy during the holidays,” states Bernier, stressing “just accept your feelings and the place where you are at.” If needed, just reach out to your network of family or friends or contact a professional, she recommends.

According to Bernier, when expectations are unrealistic, we almost always will fail to meet them. Scale back on your plans, or ask for help Just keep your expectations low and when you visit family or friends, just go and enjoy the social interactions, she says.

If seeing family causes you great amounts of stress each year, it is alright to say no sometimes and celebrate with friends, Bernier recommends. If you don’t want to withdraw from your family gathering because of tension, you don’t have to, she says. “Just keep your visit time-limited,” she recommends, only going for an hour or two rather than spending all day at the event.

The holidays can easily become a source of stress, especially when you’re standing in long lines at the local mall waiting to buy the last available iPad while trying to remember how much money you have left to use on your credit cards. Writing out a gift list along with creating a budget for holiday spending can help decrease anxiety, too, Bernier notes. By setting spending limits you will also reduce the anxiety that comes with reviewing your post-holiday credit card bills.

Maintaining healthy habits can also take the blues out of your holiday, predicts Bernier. Enjoy some eggnog, cheese cake or pastries at a holiday party, but keep the balance by eating healthy foods (smaller portions), drinking alcohol in moderation, continuing to exercise and getting enough rest.

Coping with Holiday Depression

Besides family stress, other factors may well play into bringing on the holiday blues.

During this time of the year, some Rhode Islanders may even feel a little depressed or have suicidal thoughts with the approaching upcoming festive holidays, especially if they have lost a spouse and friends, are unemployed, experiencing painful chronic illnesses, or just feel isolated from others.

If this happens, “feeling low with nowhere to turn” as noted singer songwriter Bill Withers says is a public service announcement, there is a place to call – The Samaritans of Rhode Island – 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 500,000 calls and trained more 1,380 volunteers to answer its confidential and anonymous Hotline/Listening Lines.

With the first Samaritan branch started in England in 1953, chapters 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.

Executive Director, Denise Panichas, of the Rhode Island branch, notes that the communication-based program teaches volunteers to effectively listen to people who are in crisis. 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.

Panichas noted The Samaritans of Rhode Island Listening Line is also a much needed resources for caregivers and older Rhode Islanders.

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

In 2011, The Samaritans of Rhode Island received more than 7,000 calls and hosted more than 50,000 visitors to its website.

The Samaritans of Rhode Island 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.”

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.

Professional Galley and Gift Shop Supports Program and Services

In December 2011, The Samaritans began a social venture, by relocating to the City of Pawtucket’s Arts & Entertainment District, and opening the Forget-Me-Not Gallery and Community Education Center. Through partnerships with Rhode Island’s fine arts and crafts community, “we hope to foster hope, inspiration and commemoration of the lives of our loved ones who have fallen victim to suicide,” stated Panichas.

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 of Rhode Island, 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.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers health care, aging, and medical issues. He can be contacted at hweissri@aol.com.

The Best of…Call the Samaritans for a Shoulder to Lean On

            Published on December 24, 2001, Pawtucket Times

             Chestnuts roasting on the fire.  Green wreaths with red ribbons. Soothing Christmas music coming from speakers in shopping malls.  Houses decorated with long strands of brightly colored lights.  Decorated evergreen trees.

            Got the Christmas spirit?  Many do, but many don’t, especially if they are seniors.

           With Christmas tomorrow, not everyone is feeling the holiday spirit.  The  holidays may be a very difficult time for seniors, particularly the elderly who have lost spouses and friends, have painful chronic illnesses or feel isolated or powerless, says Cynthia Barry, M.S.W, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Rhode Island.  At this time “some may feel depressed and even suicidal.”

            Even drinking during the holidays can put seniors at a higher risk of experiencing depression and thinking about suicide, Barry adds.

            Even drinking during the holidays can put seniors at a higher risk of experiencing depression and thinking about suicide, Barry adds.

            But the stigma of mental illness will keep older persons from seeking out needed treatment for their depression or suicidal thoughts, Barry says.  Those who feel that they have a problem with depression should visit their local mental health care, neighborhood health canter, the family physician or even private practitioners re commended by their health plan, she says.

            Carolyn Pellegrino, deputy director of Self Help, Inc., a nonprofit community action agency in the East Bay that provides senior case management to all upper East Bay communities and both Pawtucket and Central Falls, , notes that 60 percent of her older clients usually involve  persons who just worry to those experiencing severe clinical depression.

           “There’s a lot of depression out there,” Pellegrino says, adding that today’s seniors, who grew up in a different era, were told not to dal with their feelings of depression, “just get on with your life.”

          Although depression, like heart diseased, is an illness, seniors will get treated for their heart disease, but not their depression, Pellegrino says.  Oftentimes, a combination of medication and therapy can do wonders about a person’s depression, she states.

          A newly released Public Service Announcement (PSA) tells seniors to seek out another resource to fight the holiday blues.  Last week, WHJJ and B101 played a PSA featuring well-know songwriter Bill Withers who, after singing a few lines of his popular song, “Lean on Me,” urges his radio listeners “feeling low with nowhere to turn to contact The Samaritans.”

        Directed to the lonely, the depressed and suicidal, the PSA is intended to raise the awareness of the existence of The Samaritans of Rhode Island, a nonprofit program dedicated to reducing the  occurrence of suicide by reaching out to the despairing and lonely.

          Denise Panichas, serving as The Samaritans’ interim executive director states the communication-based program, established in Providence in 1979, teaches volunteers to effectively listen to people who are in crisis.  Conversations are free, confidential, most important anonymous.

         A rigorous training program teachers volunteers to feel and think without expressing personal judgements or opinions, Panichas says, noting that the listening technique, called “befriending,” calls for 90 percent listening and 10 percent talking.

          Last year, more than 20,o00 Rhode Islanders called The Samaritans, Panichas said.  The Samaritans, Panichas said.  “It doesn’t matter what the problem is, be it depression, suicidal thoughts, seeking resources for mental health services in the community or being  lonely and just needing to talk,” she said.

          Panichas notes that The Samaritans also offers other needed resources to caregivers and older Rhode Islanders. “We do community education programs and also have our peer-to-peer Safe Place Support Group for those left behind by suicide.

          For seniors who are looking for something to do with their time, the art of “befriending” is something that anybody can do.  Becoming a compassionate listener to someone in need.

         Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-freelance writer who covers health care, aging and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.