You couldn’t do this work if you didn’t love it, if you didn’t care. It’s not a career choice — it’s a vocation”
He remembers meeting a woman whose son went missing some years ago.
“She wanted to walk in the last place he walked. I met her and I took her to where he would have walked. I said ‘you do whatever you want to do. If you want to talk, talk. That was two years ago and she keeps in touch. Another lady lost a daughter — she likes to come up on the anniversary to walk in the last place her daughter walked.”
Music, walking and talking help Thomas to remain upbeat about life but he says it’s always “a bit of a downer when someone escapes the net”.
“I did the Darkness into Light last year and I feel like you’re helping an organisation that’s helping people. You watch people and they’re ten foot tall — they feel like they’ve achieved something,” he says.
Over 200 miles away, volunteers Pat Carlin and Stephen Twells are on duty in Foyle Search and Rescue (FSR) HQ on the banks of Lough Foyle.
Set up in 1993 the organisation’s main priority is suicide prevention and river rescue as well as providing safety cover for river events run by the city council and other local bodies.
Last year FSR volunteers rescued 21 people who had entered the river deliberately and were involved in 129 interventions.
Stephen, a store manager with Boots chemist in the city, joined the organisation 17 years ago after he got chatting with volunteers about the work they did. He describes the rescue HQ as his second home. “You couldn’t do this work if you didn’t love it, if you didn’t care. It’s not a career choice —
it’s a vocation,” he says.
“For volunteers on duty at night it can be traumatic and stressful when you’re dealing with someone in a vulnerable state. But the benefits outweigh the drawbacks — you’re helping someone at their lowest level,” says Stephen.
“You have an instinct about a person you meet — sometimes you can tell from their body language. Sometimes they’re avoiding eye contact which is unnatural. You just get a gut feeling
that something is not right with this person,” he says.
One of the hardest things, he says, is having a conversation with someone you’ve never met before and asking them are they thinking about taking their own life.
“You need to have the courage to say that. Sometimes a person will say ‘yes, I am’. Sometimes they’ll say no.
Most people will open up to us but that’s only because we’ve taken the time to ask them. A lot of times no one has ever asked them,” he says.
Stephen says sometimes the work means physically restraining someone until emergency services arrive. Sometimes it’s pulling someone back but “sometimes it’s just a matter of putting a hand gently on their shoulder. Three-quarters of the time it’s an easy coax to gently take someone back,” he says.
In the last 15 months ten people
have lost their lives to the River Foyle but despite the nature of the work he does, Stephen says it’s not all doom and gloom.
“There’s a really good team spirit in here. The main thing that keeps us going is that we know we’re making a difference. There’s a lot of team-work and training and we have a laugh. When it gets serious, we get on with the job.”
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