Volunteers provide emotional support during times of crisis

Volunteers provide emotional support during times of crisis
First responders typically can’t provide emotional support at the scene of death, accident or crisis. That’s where Trauma Intervention Program (TIP) comes in. The program, made up of volunteers, helps those affected by a crisis deal with the aftermath. Photo courtesy of Trauma Intervention Program

COAST CITIES — During one shift, Dana Roberts comforted a father who had just learned his toddler died after being struck by a car.

A simple hand squeeze between them transcended the language barrier (the father only spoke Spanish, which she is learning but isn’t yet fluent in.)

Another time, Roberts was on the scene shortly after a woman had received news that her mother passed away. Roberts helped the woman, who was understandably frantic, to locate her mom’s social security number. The woman later said she appreciated the simple, albeit important assistance immensely.

Roberts is a volunteer with TIP (Trauma Intervention Program), a nonprofit that aids citizens in the hours following a natural death, crime, suicide, accident or other crisis. Police officers, firefighters and paramedics are often busy with their own duties in the aftermath of a traumatic event, resulting in a need for emotional support.

“We’re not there to fix the situation, because you can’t fix it when someone has died,” Roberts said. “We’re there to help them through those first hours and let them realize they can get through it.”

Roberts underwent 50 hours of training after signing up for TIP in September. Classroom lectures and role-playing sessions detailed everything from the ins and outs of a crime scene to interacting with those struck by tragedy.

“They teach you how to approach people who are going through the worst day of their lives,” Roberts said. “You learn what to say, what not to say, how to help them, what they probably need they, what they don’t even know they need.”

The training is important because each emotionally charged scene calls for a different tact. Some people might demand a lot of attention, while others might be confrontational if they don’t have space.

“We call it ‘dancing the dance,’” Roberts said. “You feed off of what they need. Sometimes they’re going to need somebody to call the mortuary. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense what they need. They want somebody to help them do the dishes. Some might think, why would you want to do the dishes when your husband just died in the other room? But if that’s what they want, that’s what we do.”

And it’s necessary that volunteers check their preconceptions at the door, Roberts said. For instance, in the event a child dies, some might assume family members are the only ones who demand attention. But the child’s caretaker could be equally devastated and benefit from comfort as well, she noted.

To help those affected navigate the tough time, talking with them and “drawing their story out” often helps them calm down, she said. Other times, words fail.

“I’m not a touchy, feely person, but I learned a hand on the back goes a long ways,” she added.

Roberts, who is an engineer by trade, signed up because the program presented an opportunity to provide a vital service to the community. She said the role requires someone who is compassionate but doesn’t internalize the occasionally gruesome scenes.

“You can’t feed into the tragedy,” she said. “You have a job to do.”

She did have one worry before volunteering: That some victims might find TIP volunteers intrusive, but that hasn’t been the case so far.

“After we leave a scene, we get amazing feedback and notes from people who said they would have been lost without us,” Roberts said.

“Many TIP volunteers are people who once benefited from the program’s service,” she added.

She lives in Carlsbad and is among 40 volunteers who serve the North County coastal cities. TIP launched in San Diego in 1985, and has since started in other cities across the nation.

“We’re continuously expanding,” said Jacquey Stanick, North County crisis team manager. “A recognition exists among more in law enforcement that people should be by the side of those in trauma.”

Stanick noted that the program runs on donations and grants.

Several weeks ago at a community event, Sheriff’s Capt. Robert Haley and others from the department expressed their appreciation for Roberts and the other TIP volunteers.

Beyond providing emotional support that might otherwise be missing, a TIP volunteer must also serve as a liaison between detectives and family and friends at the scene.

Clear communication is required so both sides are kept up to speed on the latest updates.

“You learn to speak clearly so there’s no ambiguity,” Roberts said.

Roberts is on call from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. three times a month. During her shifts, she wears comfortable clothes. And she keeps her schedule open, so she’s free from appointments and even grocery store trips. For good reason: She might have to leave at the drop of a hat if a TIP dispatcher calls.

“We want to get to any scene within 20 minutes of getting a call no matter what,” she said.

A look inside her car further reveals the extent of her preparation. There are cases of water, a traffic vest, chairs for people to sit on and a plastic storage drawer contains hundreds of forms, including a list of mortuaries in the area.

“People dealing with grief might not realize they need to make so many plans,” Roberts said. “We’re there to help.”

Roberts said she plans to continue volunteering for the program.

“You can read testimonials on our website that show just how much people appreciate us,” she said.

To learn more or donate to TIP, visit tipsandiego.org.

 

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  1. Dr. Lorri says:

    I am a psychologist by profession, so my response has a little something to do with what I am about to write. Although I see value in TIP as well as CERT, I often wonder what happens if the volunteer does more harm than good. Many years ago we had a house fire about 3 homes down from where I live. It was about 2PM and many of us saw smoke and saw a dog barking on the upstairs patio. While someone called the fire dept. others attempted to rescue the dog, start watering down the house, and perhaps see if anyone was in it. We got the dog, but unfortunately could not get into the house. When the firefighters arrived I asked the person in charge if they needed some mental health assistance, as I am a Red Cross Mental health Disaster trained volunteer as well. They said the CERT team was on their way. So I did nothing, until the man who lived in the home came rushing home from work, yelling that his wife, who was in a wheelchair was inside. The CERT person had not arrived so they asked for my assistance after all. The man and I spoke, and his daughter, who was 13 was on her way home from school. The man’s son also came. I had put the dog in my backyard, so when the daughter arrived we all went to my house so she could see her dog. The firefighters had found her mothers body, and it was unrecognizable. I stayed with this family for hours. When the CERT person arrived she gave mostly platitudes, such as “I know how you feel” to the man and his 2 children. No one can know what anyone feels at any time, so I guess I have to admit I was less than impressed. Eventually the CERT person left and the neighbors raised money for them to stay at motel. Cardiff Seaside Market donated food, and the community was very supportive. I realize this is one story, but I have heard many like this. When one is talking about traumatic events, I’m not sure a person who has had 50 hours training is qualified to do more good than harm. Someone please prove me wrong, as I would like to believe differently. However, I have malpractice insurance, so someone can sue me if I mess up.Do these volunteers have it? WHo pays if there is more harm than good that comes from these interactions? These are just questions, I would love to be enlightened, as I know I sound like a “NIMBY”, or “Elitist” regarding my chosen profession.

    • MM says:

      Dr. Lorri, I too want to thank you for all you do as a mental health professional. Please know that our TIP founder is a mental health professional as well. I am speaking for myself as a TIP volunteer here and I want to clarify something – TIP and CERT are two entirely different entities serving two entirely different purposes; we do, however, work hand-in-hand at times. To confuse the two entities would not only be a shame, it would do a disservice to each. I’d like to point out that no where in Dr. Lorri’s letter is it indicated that it was a TIP volunteer on the scene offering these platitudes.

      In TIP we get down into the pit with the client, we do not try to pull the client out. We are called to scenes to provide the emotional first aid and support the other professionals sometimes can’t provide; not because these wonderful response groups and first responders don’t want to, but because they are concentrating on the practical aspects of a situation or tragedy (locating shelter for a victim, maintaining a crime scene, catching a suspect, preventing further criminal activity, coordinating the long term care for volunteers responding to assist with a large scale or long term rescue operation). The TIP volunteer however, is there solely to be with the victim and/or survivors and, if needed, act as a liaison between the two and ultimately provide practical resources, up to and including referral to mental health professionals for long term care. I urge anyone who is interested in learning about and understanding the differences between the various volunteer organizations to go to our TIP website(s) to learn more.

    • A.L.L. says:

      DR Lori,
      Im a volunteer. We are not trying to take the place of a professional mental care provider. What we are doing 7/24, is be with someone who is alone, as they are going thru a very traumatic time in their life. We are there to comfort, provide a load of information. Some times just to sit with them. To work with them and officers/M.E. ect. But never do we say “i know how you feel” because we don’t. Every body deals differently to a traumatic event.
      This is their event not mine.

  2. L. S. says:

    While, I have no experience with CERT or any other teams, other than TIP, I can assure you, the training that is received speaks against platitudes. Everything that you mentioned in your experience, was from a different program. TIP is highly recognized by professionals from all fields. There are training academy’s coming up, if you would like to see what is taught. I think you would be impressed by what the training covers. I am glad you expressed your concern, yet I can vouch for quality of the training that the volunteers go through. The training specifically covers this, so that it does not happen with TIP.

  3. Angel says:

    Hi Dr. Lorri. First, thank you for taking the time to read the article and make comments. I do not speak on behalf of the organization, just myself. Keeping in mind that sometimes others have no support network, may I ask you a couple of questions? Would you rather a volunteer come be by the side of a person who just suffered a loss and has no one else to be with them? Or would you rather that person simply be left alone during traumatizing times? The goal of TIP is to minimize further injury to persons, not cause it.

    Also, the reason you (and I) have been required to have numerous credit hours in ethics courses/continuing education is due to unethical behavior within the mental health profession. While uncommon, it cannot be stated that this does not occur by even the most educated and licensed individuals. I truly believe that one negative interaction does not condemn an entire profession – be it volunteers or licensed professionals. I believe if you make the time to learn more about TIP, you would come to appreciate the men, women, and even teens who freely give their time and hearts to those who are suffering. They take their roles seriously, sometimes leaving a warm bed during the middle of the night to stand in the rain beside a busy highway. Without pay. Why? Because they simply care about others. No license or accreditation required.

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