Our CEO, Sam Thomas, and Chair of Trustees, Philippa Bayley recently took some time to talk about working with The Harbour. Sam has recently announced that he is leaving The Harbour, after over 8 years at the helm, and we thought it would be a perfect opportunity to find out more about what it is like to manage a local charity with huge ambition.
Philippa: I know you have been involved with The Harbour for a long time now, can you tell us a little bit about how you came to be involved and what drew you to work here?
Sam: I first made contact with The Harbour towards the end of 2011, when they were advertising for new Trustees. I was doing my counselling training and working for another charity at the time, and I saw this advert for this interesting charity that I had never heard of before. It really sparked my interest, both in terms of therapy and supporting people facing that kind of enormous existential reality that we all face.
I also really remember being struck by the peacefulness of the building. I can vividly remember the sense of the peaceful, calm building and this very important work going on in quite a small organisation. It was quietly doing this very important work. I was doing my counselling training so I didn’t have time for the trustee role but soon after they advertised for the CEO role and I applied.
That first contact for me was a really strong experience, and I still have that sense of the importance of the work and a sense of an organisation that was solid and rooted; it had the space to think about this incredibly difficult thing that our mind kind of moves away from instinctively.
It is almost 30 years of The Harbour doing that important work. What runs through all of that is that importance of space, a safe place to think things that are incredibly difficult. I am very proud to have been part of that, individually and collectively; the organisation to have done what it has done and for me to be a small part of that.
P: At the time, did you have any experience dealing with bereavement?
S: My grandfather had died a few years before and I think that was a formative experience; I went to see him in hospital and arrived moments after he died and so was with my grandmother whilst she dealt with that news. Personally, I have always had curiosity about what happens in our minds when we think about death, dying and loss. I think that really drew me to The Harbour.
S: It would be great to hear how you came into contact with The Harbour?
P: After my mum passed away I wanted to open up a space for people to bring their creative responses to bereavement and loss into a collaborative exhibition and discussion space. I was realising the importance of having space and a different modality; having that protected space to share these really tender, difficult feelings. Much as I would have loved to hold the exhibition space forever, I couldn’t do that, so I wanted to find a way to take that energy to open up conversations about death and dying. I wanted to continue that through a different channel, which was The Harbour
S: I think there is something so important about that idea of feelings being able to be contained and be thought about, whether that’s through creative expression or talking…
P: Yes, that’s where it comes back to what you were saying about the building and the containment that that offers as well. In some ways the exhibition was similar, it’s a space in the centre of Bristol called The Island, which is an old police station, down a pretty dingy alley. People would be coming into the exhibition from their daily lives and see this space and realise was different, it was about death and dying. It provided that container and a space that was quiet but dedicated to something important.
S: There’s so many parallels there with the work of The Harbour.
I also think it’s so important, thinking about how The Harbour began. They were responding to people who were facing death and dying and diagnoses of HIV and AIDS. Now here we are during Covid-19, and as an organisation it is so important that the work carries on through the changing times.
P: I think, thankfully, with the changing times there is also a greater willingness to look at these difficult experiences and not feel like we have to hide them or away or suffer on our own and just deal with it. There is a greater openness talking about our own mental health and the challenges we face. I think death is still a difficult thing for most people to talk about. I hope the stigma and the social discomfort around it is easing with time, and that makes it easier for people to seek help and find their way to resources that can support them.
We know that our clients really do value the service we offer, a service which has been making ripples for nearly 30 years. It is not just every client, it every clients’ family, their children, their friends, their work associations.
P: We’ve talked a bit about how The Harbour has changed over the last year; what are your reflections on what the last year has brought for The Harbour?
S: We often talked about offering a remote service, or a service for people who couldn’t make it to our premises. We had tried to think of how we might do that and then we just had to do it almost overnight. The staff team have responded so well to that. It has been very difficult, and it has taken a lot but we have done it; it is something as an organisation that we have responded to collectively and individually. That is something I am very proud of, that over the last year we have been able to respond and keep that space open for people.
P: So, you would say that a particularly proud moment has been that ability to shift to offering, keeping the space at The Harbour open for those difficult conversations all the way through the pandemic. Of course, when we started this, we had no idea that we would be doing this a year later.
S: Yes, we went into an unknown future. So that is a particularly proud moment. Another proud moment was the conference we held a few years ago to mark our 25th anniversary. Now it is almost 30 years of The Harbour doing this important work. What runs through all of that is that importance of space, a safe place to think things that are incredibly difficult. I am very proud to have been part of that, individually and collectively; the organisation to have done what it has done and for me to be a small part of that. I am very proud of that.
P: I agree. Also, what comes to mind when you say that, is the people who have been profoundly supported by the work of The Harbour. We know that our clients really do value the service we offer, a service which has been making ripples for nearly 30 years. It is not just every client, it every clients’ family, their children, their friends, their work associations. When you think that it’s been going for 30 years, that feels almost like a tidal wave.
S: One of the everyday things that I will treasure when I look back at my time at The Harbour, is reading the evaluation forms that people return. The impact of the work on people is profound and also it is everyday. It is that ability to be in relationship with people around them, to have conversations that they did not think they could have before. The fact that we have been able to help people with that is incredibly important.
P: And just to wrap up Sam, what do you see in the future for The Harbour? If you’re sending it on its way with good wishes, what would they be?
S: I think for the organisation to go confidently out there and become less of a hidden away, small organisation. A lot of people say they have never heard of us and I would love to see it grow, whilst retaining the core of the service; the space and the ability to think about difficult things. Of course, that needs funding, it needs support, and it needs us to convincingly tell people about the importance of the service and how vital it is.
I would also like to see us supporting people from across all of Bristol. I think some of the most important work that we have done is with people who have maybe never thought about going to therapy before. I would love to see us taking the best of what we can offer and supporting more people who do not currently access the service.
P: Thank you so much Sam. We wish you well in your next adventure.
If you would like to find out more about the Chief Executive role and how to apply, then please click here.