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The Messengers: People Who Volunteer To Deliver The Worst News In Tragic Times

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HOLLAND, Mich. (Feb. 17, 2014) – Ask a police officer, firefighter, or any first responder why they do what they do and you’ll likely hear about a need to help others.

There are some aspects of those jobs that no one looks forward to, delivering devastating news in a time of tragedy is one of those tasks.

That’s why it can be hard to believe there are people across West Michigan who volunteer to do just that.

They are sometimes called the ‘Angels of the Agency’, in Holland they are formally called the Victim Service Unit.

It is a group that has extensive training for a job that isn’t for everyone.

Captain Jack Dykstra with the Holland Department of Public Safety said he has had to deliver bad news to more than one family.

“It’s just difficult all the way around,” said Captain Dykstra. “You have to be pretty direct with the information and then be there to support the family and do your best to answer questions.”

Before 1997, the difficult task fell on the public safety officers in Holland.

“We found that we weren’t serving the public well and families of the victims well,” said Captain Dykstra.

In 1997 the city formed the Victim Service Unit, a volunteer unit who act as advocates for victims of crimes or crisis.

“The advocates are just regular people who have a good heart,” said the program director, Yvette Mendoza.

“I lost two children myself,” she said “They’ve been gone now for 25 years.  Back in those days they didn’t have these kind of services and I know the gap that it leaves.”

Because of her situation, she decided to fill those gaps for others.

“Officers have to go and continue on with the next call, the next situation,” Captain Dykstra said.  “But to leave those victims service advocates there is a tremendous extension of that care.”

Volunteering requires commitment.  They are on call for one week, off for another three.

When the phone rings for a volunteer, “You drop what you are doing, you leave your cart in the grocery store and you go.”

The volunteers receive training from the Michigan Sheriff’s Association.  Training is not required for most police officers in West Michigan.  Volunteers are learning what to expect when that door opens.

“That can have extremes,” said Mendoza.  “From someone who is very stoic to someone is very hysterical.  So it takes someone who has a good deal of flexibility to be able to meet the needs of the people they are dealing with.”

A visit from a volunteer can typically last between two to three hours.

Mendoza said there are exceptions, “There have been other times where we have spent maybe 48 hours of advocate time on a call.”

The advocates are there to spend time the with families, making calls for them, informing them of what to anticipate next.

“Sometimes there are no good words, sometimes it’s just a matter of being there, listening to them,” she said.

Mendoza said constantly delivering devastating news affects the messengers, “We also have monthly meetings where we debrief our calls and can express some of the feelings that we are having and deal with some of that stuff.”

So why do they do it? Mendoza said it’s simple for her; treating others as she would want to be treated.

“I understand that although bad things are happening and we can’t fix that,” said Mendoza.  “We can do a better job of meeting our citizens in a compassionate manner and helping them find resources.  Police can’t always do that themselves.”

Captain Dykstra said, “The reality of it is, there is bad news and the best way to deliver that news is our goal.”

Victim service units are available in Muskegon, Allegan, and Ottawa Counties.  In Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, and Battle Creek however, it’s often the on-duty Sergeant who is called on to deliver the news.

The Michigan Sheriff’s Association is trying to give more police departments access to the training they offer.

The Holland Department of Public Safety is looking for volunteers, one problem they run into is no one knows they exist.

They currently have 16 volunteers and the department is looking for three more.  If you live in the area and would like to get involved you can email Mendoza.

Her email address is:

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  • Bill

    The Ionia County Victim Service Unit had over 70 calls last year. The calls ranged from fires, suicides, shootings,natural deaths and a range of other calls. The volunteers of this group responded to all of them at all times of the day and night. People in bad situations sometimes just need a person to be there, to help, to care a little bit, the advocates are these people. They are truly angels.

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