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Hand of friendship can lift people who need our help

This week we learned about the extensive impact that post-traumatic stress has in Northern Ireland: we have the highest rate of post-traumatic stress in the world - beyond Israel and Lebanon.

Decades of conflict in Northern Ireland have taken their toll, leading to isolation, deprivation, discrimination and despondency.

The effects of these are even more pronounced in our current icy winter, when it's hard to get out and about and expensive to keep warm.

We are social creatures and we crave the company of family and friends. The Troubles have, unfortunately, taken their toll on this most basic aspect of human interaction.

There are those among us who have lost loved ones, who have withdrawn from society and who find it difficult - if not impossible - to engage with those around them.

It is in these situations that 'befriending' comes into play - as a welcome gift, a support mechanism and a step on the road to re-integration back into society.

It's a service provided by those groups working with victims and survivors. Volunteer befrienders make contact with those in need and offer a helping hand, sometimes with simple activities, and other times with emotionally difficult ones.

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One befriender makes weekly visits to an elderly widow in a rural area and takes her to a cafe for a bowl of soup; it means so much, because the woman rarely gets out.

Another befriender goes to a nursing home, bunch of flowers in hand, to visit a man disabled in a violent incident. A third does the weekly shopping for a housebound widow and brings a sack of coal to keep her warm.

Yet another lays salt on the driveway for a man in a wheelchair. Many befrienders accompany those who suffered in the conflict to visit the graves of those of both traditions.

At this time of year, some are also presented with Christmas hampers: tokens of fellowship which are remembered long after the holiday season passes.

Without exception, those who are visited appreciate the small gestures; the friendship, the understanding and especially the gift of time.

Befriending is a unique means of contact for these lonely, isolated, and neglected members of our society. It takes time - and training - to build these relationships. The volunteers need to understand how to listen and communicate; they need to know what the appropriate personal and emotional boundaries are in providing this service. Every case is different.

It's no accident that befrienders are often from the same community as their clients: these people need to have a deep understanding of individual situations.

Trust is also an important factor: victims and survivors have experienced significant trauma and are vulnerable. The befrienders also require support, guidance, and careful monitoring to ensure that their service is sensitively and effectively delivered.

The scheme has been going since 2006 and is most active in rural areas, where isolation is most pronounced.

There are currently 175 trained befrienders, servicing more than 400 people in Northern Ireland.

A new scheme covers young befrienders: this peer-to-peer initiative deals with such important transgenerational issues as suicide awareness, drug abuse, sexual matters and financial worries.

The efforts of these essential volunteers was recognised at an event in Omagh this week. One hundred accredited befrienders of all ages were presented with certificates.

There were also awards recognising the excellent work done by administrators, co-ordinators, groups and programmes, as well as by individuals who have demonstrated skill, dedication and determination to develop and sustain this important service.

By acknowledging the gift of time offered by befrienders, we appreciate our need for goodwill, companionship and peace - all important in our thoughts at Christmas.

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