By Gordon Calder

Victims of sexual harassment, people with mental health problems and revellers who have drunk too much could all be helped by a new initiative being set up in Caithness.

A team of street pastors will be providing what is described as “a beneficial service” in Wick and Thurso and will operate in areas where bars and clubs are located as well as in some housing estates to assist anyone in need.

Plans for the Caithness Street Pastors – which were delayed due to the pandemic – have the backing of the police, local councillors and church leaders.

The scheme, which was founded by the Ascension Trust in 2003 and has a presence in more than 20 towns and cities across Scotland and in 282 locations worldwide, will be in the far north from November. Volunteers, drawn from local churches of different denominations, will offer reassurance, safety and help to anyone who requires it.

Alan Finch, the co-ordinator of the Caithness Street Pastors, said the initial focus will be on housing estates but will later include areas with bars and clubs.

At present, four volunteers have been trained but it is hoped that two teams of six volunteers could operate in Wick and Thurso and at events such as music festivals and Highland Games.

Mr Finch, who was a street pastor in Aberdeen for seven years before moving back to Caithness, said Police Scotland, local councillors and church leaders are “very supportive” of the initiative and feel it will be useful.

“I think there is a need for this service. People’s mental health seems to have become worse since the Covid pandemic and some feel reticent, anxious and stressed after being locked up for almost three years,” he said.

“We believe and it is clear from the issues the pandemic has brought about that street pastors will provide a beneficial service for the community.”

Mr Finch stressed that volunteers have to be trained, have to be Christians, belong to a church and be over 18 years of age. The training lasts 12 days and is done over a 12-week period. Volunteers will wear branded jackets and caps when they are out and about and carry backpacks with items such as foil blankets for people who are cold.

“Volunteers offer worse-for-wear revellers practical help to get them home safely and assist people at times of stress, vulnerability and even danger,” he said.

“Street pastors are able to deal with many low-level situations that ordinarily would be handled by the police, such as calming down people who are being rowdy and deal with situations with compassion and in confidence.

“We stress the importance of listening to people and the trained volunteers will engage with people who have mental health issues, are victims of sexual harassment or are experiencing other problems.

“There is a need for people to listen, care and help confidentially and non-judgmentally and, although volunteers would be in the main patrolling Wick and Thurso, they would do their best to help people in distress safely return to their homes in outlying communities,” added Mr Finch.

Initially, the team will operate once a month but as volunteers increase it is hoped two groups could undertake patrols in Wick and Thurso two weeks each month. Mr Finch stressed the volunteers will offer reassurance, safety and support where needed.

He explained that the street pastor group could not get off the ground without “a community driven need” and pointed out interested parties first got together in November 2019. That was followed by further meetings in Wick and Thurso but their plans were put on hold when the coronavirus pandemic struck the following March.

“We were on track until the pandemic was declared and had a small number of volunteers who wanted to become trained as street pastors. We were successful in gaining some funding through Your Cash Your Caithness and even organised the initial training modules,” stated Mr Finch.

He said a number of modules need to be completed before volunteers are allowed to go out on the streets. Training is monitored by the Ascension Trust  to ensure quality standards are maintained so volunteers could relocate to another part of the UK and continue to be a street pastor.

The first Caithness volunteers have completed their training and will be commissioned at a special service in the Wick Baptist Church on November 19. “After that, we will be able to go out on patrol,” said Mr Finch. “Our motto is caring, listening and helping,” he added.