FRAMINGHAM — For 16 years, Peter H. Robinson volunteered his time at a Samaritans office in Framingham, answering desperate calls from people thinking of suicide.
But last week, the doors there were shut as Samaritans Inc. abruptly announced it would consolidate all operations in Boston and lay off five employees, four of whom were based in Framingham.
To officials at Samaritans, eliminating the brick-and-mortar presence makes financial sense in a tough economy. But to many of the 100 volunteers and the staff who oversaw them, the sudden move is an affront to the spirit of a group rooted in support and friendship.
“It’s sort of what you do with criminals,” said Robinson, a 61-year-old Framingham resident who is a former Samaritans board member. “The whole basis of what we do is compassionate listening, and yet this organization locked us out of our facility. That’s just not the way you treat anyone, much less the way you treat someone if that’s your corporate ethos.”
Roberta Hurtig, executive director of Samaritans Inc., said closing the Framingham office was a tough decision by the board of directors to free up funds for expanded services, including prevention programs and support services for those who have lost someone to suicide. Calls to the hotlines are being diverted to Boston.
“We save lives everyday, and that has not through this change been interrupted,” said Hurtig. “And I think that’s what the public and our supporters and the greater community needs to know: We plan on continuing to be here.”
Over a year, more than 500 people volunteer across the organization, mostly to answer calls, Hurtig said. In the past week, more than 20 of those associated with the Framingham office have said they will come to Boston to continue their service, Hurtig said.
But some volunteers say they will not because they feel bitter about the way the closing was handled or because they simply cannot travel that far.
About 60 volunteers gathered at a Framingham restaurant Tuesday night to hug and vent and grieve. Volunteers said they will miss the family they had become and questioned why they were not included in an effort to find alternatives to closing.
There were men and women from all walks of life, ranging in age from teens to a 90-year-old nun who said she could not go to Boston on a regular basis.
Sister Edna Barbadoro of Framingham volunteered at Samaritans for 18 years, heading into the nearby office every weekday. Asked how she felt about the closing, she paused and shook her head. “Well, deeply saddened,” she said.
“Samaritans had become for me a vocation within a vocation,” said Barbadoro. “It enabled me to listen to people that had traumatic events in their lives.”
Peter Marsh, chairman of the board of Samaritans Inc., said everything they do focuses first and foremost on the goal of eliminating suicide.
“The board believes that this decision, while difficult, allows Samaritans to continue to provide the same level of services to the Boston and MetroWest communities in the short term, and will also position us to expand our services in the future,” said Marsh, who lost his twin brother to suicide six years ago.
Founded about three decades ago, Samaritans of Framingham operated independently before becoming part of Samaritans Inc. eight years ago.
Alan Quarello, who was executive director of Samaritans of Framingham before its absorption by the Boston group, wrote a scathing letter accusing Hurtig of bad management and sent it Monday to Governor Deval Patrick, state Senator Karen Spilka of Ashland, and state Representative Chris Walsh of Framingham. None could be reached for comment Tuesday.
Quarello wrote that operating costs were low relative to the call volume, and he asked that the Legislature review the matter.
“Funding that should have gone to continue services in MetroWest was used instead by Boston to rent expensive office space and new furniture and hire additional staff,” he wrote.
Joellen Samojla, one of the part-time staff laid off, echoed some of his concerns.
“I am not at all upset about the job loss; this isn’t about a few employees losing their jobs,” she said. “This is about a loss in the community. We take over 40,000 calls a year.”
Samojla, a Sudbury resident who volunteered with her daughter before becoming an employee, said her office had just looked at the budget and was exceeding all the goals it had been given.
Hurtig said the Framingham volunteers answered about one-third of the 130,000 annual calls. But the decision was more complicated than rents and call numbers.
“They’re wrong and misinformed,” she said. “I know they’re upset and angry, but they’re just wrong.”
Regarding Quarello’s comments about the Boston office space, Hurtig said the move about three years ago took the Samaritans to a smaller, less expensive space.
But for the unhappy volunteers, the real sting comes from the loss of friendship and community, a tight bond formed over many hours of taking harrowing phone calls.
“If somebody was having a bad day, we were there to listen and support them,” Robinson said. “Some of these calls were pretty tough. Talking to someone who’s in such pain they want to end their life is not an easy thing to do.”