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Extending a hand to people in despair

(Editor's Note: As MIT's United Way fund-raising campaign progresses this month, profiles of MIT people who volunteer their time for United Way agencies will appear in Tech Talk. If you know of someone who might be included, call Alice Waugh, x8-5401.)

When considering donations to the United Way or similar organizations, people often think of the phrase "good Samaritan." MIT's David Hogarth fits the phrase more aptly than most.

During the first two years of his employment at the Institute (he is now a senior staff assistant in Distributed Computing and Network Services) and for many years before that, Mr. Hogarth volunteered as the head of Lifeline, a suicide-prevention program at the Charles Street Jail which he created. As an Episcopal cleric, he also devoted time on Sunday as the jail's chaplain, from which his Lifeline work grew. Lifeline (now operating in the Suffolk County Prison) is one of the services offered by Samaritans, the international suicide-prevention organization.

The intervention program at the jail is staffed by fellow inmates who provide counseling. For many who have led a life of crime, "it's the first time in their lives that they're reaching out to help someone," Mr. Hogarth said. His work and that of the inmates paid off; during his tenure, the suicide rate at the jail dropped from four a month to less than one per year

Although he retired as a chaplain and discontinued his work with the Samaritans in 1991, two years after coming to MIT, Mr. Hogarth carries a fund of knowledge and experience that he continues to use. He still consults with organizations all over the world (including the government of New Zealand) on how to prevent prison suicides.

During much of his career, Mr. Hogarth has packed his volunteer work with Samaritans and other groups around a full-time job, leaving him with very little free time. "I tend to overextend," he admitted. But his beliefs about service don't give him much choice.

"I believe it's human nature to help," he said. "If we don't cooperate, our humanity doesn't exist."

The Boston chapter of Samaritans, the first in the United States, was founded in 1974 by Monica Dickens, great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens. This fiscal year, United Way is giving Samaritans $54,370, which is about one-fifth of the agency's total annual budget, according to Kevin MacKenzie, development coordinator for Samaritans.

As well as the 24-hour hotline that Samaritans is best known for, the local agency also operates the SAMARITEENS hotline from 3-9pm daily, where depressed teenagers can talk to trained peers who volunteer at the phones. That service, which began in Boston in 1986, takes about 10,000 calls a year; the 24-hour hotline (staffed by a total of about 110 trained volunteers annually) gets about 80,000 callers, Mr. MacKenzie said.

In addition, Samaritans runs a community outreach program to provide information to schools, civic organizations and other groups about what suicide is, how to spot warning signs and how to help a potentially suicidal person. There is also Safe Place, a support group for those who have lost a friend or relative to suicide.

There are 10 chapters of Samaritans on the East Coast, including four others in Massachusetts and chapters in Providence, Hartford, Albany, New York and Washington.

Mr. Hogarth is assisting with MIT's United Way campaign because the money raised is so important to those it ultimately helps. "I'm just delighted that I'm able to work with United Way because I don't think you can spend money any better," he said. "I'm not going to be giving my money to someone who's not earning it."

MIT's goal during the current United Way drive that lasts until November 30 is to raise $320,000. The effort is part of the overall campaign by United Way of Massachusetts Bay, which hopes to garner donations of $45.36 million. That money is distributed among 210 non-profit human services agencies serving 1.7 million people in 81 cities and towns.

A version of this article appeared in the November 3, 1993 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 12).

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