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Help When You Need It : Volunteers Offer Quick Support in Times of Trauma

One evening last March, when a 17-year-old boy went into cardiac arrest while playing basketball at the Boys and Girls Club of Oceanside, police and paramedics responded with lightning speed. Right on their heels was a volunteer, offering assistance to the horrified staff and teen-agers who had witnessed the boy’s collapse.

Before the ambulance even got near the emergency room of Tri-City Medical Center, two more volunteers were there, supporting the teen-ager’s father, who had been called and was awaiting his wife’s arrival. The volunteers stayed with the parents through the night as they dealt with the death of their son. The following week, the volunteers coordinated counseling sessions at the Boys and Girls Club, and at Oceanside High School, where the boy had been a student.

“They were just there, providing background support and offering counseling right away,” said a staff member at the club who was there that March night. “They were timely. You would expect some support maybe the next day after someone reads about it in the paper, but they were there immediately,” he said.

These volunteers who appear in the midst of tragedy work with the Carlsbad-based Trauma Intervention Program. The program serves eight North County cities and is composed of 45 specially trained volunteers.

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The goal of TIP is to provide immediate emotional and practical support to the victims of crimes and accidents. They try to breach the seemingly interminable gap between the time emergency help arrives at a scene and the time a victim’s own family and friends can be called in for support.

The volunteers run the gamut from students to housewives to professionals, and often their only common link is a desire to help their neighbors in a time of need.

TIP got its beginnings in 1985 in Oceanside. Founder and executive director Wayne Fortin, who was working for the county’s mental health department and dealing closely with police, saw a need for the program.

He saw that emergency personnel, such as police and firefighters, didn’t have time to give emotional support to victims or their families. Once their work was done, they were gone, and the victims were left to manage the best they could.

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“The police officer has his own job dealing with the crime scene, he has his information he needs to find out,” said Barbara Mirolla, project coordinator for the program. “A TIP volunteer deals with the family or loved ones of the primary victim and helps free up the emergency system so they don’t have to stay at the scene for as long a period of time.”

Carlsbad Fire Chief Brian Watson said his agency has used the program for more than two years now, with good results.

“It is definitely an asset to our operation to delivering service to the community,” Watson said. “It fills a gap that we can’t fill, because once we get through with one emergency, we have to get back in service for the next one. In some cases, when we have somebody with a support need we can’t fill, TIP steps in.”

Secondary victims--such as a bystander, a witness to a crime, the driver of a car that hit someone--often need help themselves, Mirolla said.

The importance of quick emotional and practical help cannot be overemphasized, she said. TIP volunteers are trained to give that, as well as to protect the victims from further trauma by the system or by onlookers.

“Minutes of skillful support by any sensitive person immediately after a tragedy can be worth more than hours of professional counseling later,” Mirolla said. “So many problems after the fact are created by how a situation was handled at the time.”

TIP handles about 50 calls a month, most of which involve deaths--accidental, suicidal or natural. Next is major medical emergencies, such as heart attacks.

Volunteers now work in rotating 12-hour shifts, often going out on calls that last from three to six hours. Dispatchers from police and fire departments as well as paramedics are supplied with a 24-hour phone list of on-call volunteers.

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The program’s goal is to respond to a trauma scene within 20 minutes, Mirolla said.

TIP volunteers go through a 55-hour training program that consists of classes on victimology, the helping relationship and the dynamics of a person in crisis.

Trainees learn to deal with death, suicide, victims of assault, domestic violence and rape, Mirolla said. Prospective volunteers get specific instruction on the types of situations they might encounter.

When a volunteer goes out on a call, he or she first handles the emotional issues, then addresses the practical needs. Each volunteer is equipped with resources that might be needed after a tragedy, including instructions on how to arrange a funeral and information on local support groups.

“One of the reasons TIP volunteers are so helpful is because we’re prepared for these types of situations where the average citizen is not,” Mirolla said. “Most of us go around thinking, ‘These things happen to someone else, not to me.’ It’s certainly not something you prepare for.”

In addition to the one-time training, volunteers are required to attend a monthly three-hour meeting. Usually they meetings include a lecture from a member of the Women’s Resource Center or the Victim Aid Program.

Terey Zavala, a 26-year-old Vista woman, has been a volunteer for about a year. “A natural death call was my first experience,” she said. “Basically, I introduced myself to the scene captain, and asked where they were at in their investigation, and waited with the family until the coroner came.

“Often, a victim isn’t sure what’s going on, they may have heard something, but it doesn’t make sense,” Zavala said. “I try to explain the situation and act as a liaison between the police and the victim.”

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Zavala said that once the people in crisis realize she is a trained citizen, they are more receptive to her help. Usually inhibited by the presence of police or firefighters in their home, they are thankful for someone more on their level who is capable of dealing with the emergency personnel, Zavala said.

Toni Griffith, a 43-year-old staff assistant at Palomar College, volunteered four years ago to deal with what she called her “empty nest syndrome.” She says living through a trauma in her own life and her need to give to others has equipped her for what she sees in the field.

“You name it, I’ve been on it,” Griffith said. “Every time I think, ‘Am I really prepared?’ And then all your training kicks in and automatically takes over,” she said.

“When you’re in a traumatic situation and there are so many things to do, somebody who has never planned a funeral before doesn’t know what to do first. We know those things.”

The volunteer also calls back a couple of days later to find out how the person is doing.

The Trauma Intervention Program covers Oceanside, Carlsbad, Vista, San Marcos, Rancho Santa Fe, Encinitas, Solana Beach and Fallbrook. It operates on a yearly budget of $50,000, and is partially funded by the eight cities it serves and by fund-raising efforts, grants and private donations.

The program is expected to expand soon to include all of Camp Pendleton.

“We are always working on expansion,” Mirolla said. “The executive director is always making presentations, contacting the cities. It’s just a matter of expanding the program a little at a time.”

Trauma Intervention Program volunteers must be at least 21, be able to provide their own transportation and live in the North Coastal area. For additional information, call 931-2104.


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