They've been helping strangers through their roughest times for years, stepping without hesitation into lives awash in grief, worry or fear. From the elderly woman who wakes up to find that her husband of 60 years has died in his sleep, to the family whose home is destroyed by fire, a volunteer with the county's Trauma Intervention Programs is usually there.
On standby around the clock, they plunk themselves into the middle of crises within 20 minutes of the initial call. Whether it's a suicide, a shooting, a car accident or a baby's crib death, the volunteers move about them in much the same way. They hold hands, pat backs and break the news to relatives. They wait. They listen.
They do it all quietly, gently. And now they've been recognized as one of the most effective victims' advocacy programs in the country by U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, who will present the group with the prestigious Crime Victim Service Award this month.
It's an honor that Trauma Intervention Programs founder Wayne Fortin said is well deserved and long overdue. In five years, Orange County's TIP has grown to include 45 volunteers with about 30 more in training. About 1,000 volunteers work for TIP programs around the nation.
"It's so gratifying to finally be recognized at all, and on such an important level is just really something," said Fortin, who heads the national program in Mission Viejo. "Our volunteers work behind the scenes doing an incredibly difficult job, and they deserve every minute in this spotlight."
Fortin, a marriage and family counselor who launched TIP about 15 years ago in the San Diego area, said there is nothing--and everything--remarkable about his volunteers. They are homemakers, nurses, construction workers and store clerks. Some are retired, some are in high school. They go through an intensive, 55-hour training session before they are placed on call for three 12-hour shifts each month. They are not paid for their work; most cover the cost of a pager or cellular phone on their own.
"These people deliver human kindness for no other reason than to deliver human kindness," said Keith Fujimoto, a battalion chief with the Costa Mesa Fire Department, which encourages the use of TIP volunteers at emergencies large and small. "I've seen them in action, and they truly are guardian angels. You can't imagine how much they do."
Typically, a TIP call begins when a paramedic, police officer or firefighter determines that a volunteer would be helpful at the scene and radios a 911 dispatcher, who in turn calls the TIP team leader on duty, who pages a volunteer. They work primarily in south and central Orange County, where seven cities support TIP, as do the California Highway Patrol and the Orange County Sheriff's Department.
Most volunteers receive at least one call every shift. From January through October of last year, the Costa Mesa Fire Department called for their help 61 times.
One call came when an elderly resident of a high-rise retirement home jumped from a 17th-floor window. The scene was complicated by another factor: It was visitors day, and the building was packed with families and children.
"I stood there outside next to this bloody, 35-foot impact zone and looked up," Fujimoto said. "All these faces and heads were peering down at me--15 stories high--and I knew we had to do something."
Eight TIP volunteers spent the rest of the day with residents and their families, moving from floor to floor until they could get to everyone. By the time they were finished, Fujimoto and his fire crew were long gone.
"We can't stick around at things like this all the time, even if we want to," he said. "We have to pick up our toys and get going and be ready for the next call. But [TIP volunteers] give us the peace of mind to do that."
The federal award, which will be delivered April 19 during a ceremony in Washington, describes TIP as helping victims with "exceptional commitment and effectiveness" and marks the program's first public recognition beyond the community level.
While such tributes are appreciated by the volunteers, they are not necessary to keep them doing their jobs, they say. They've responded to their share of high-profile emergencies that make headlines and the nightly news, but most TIP volunteers say it's helping people get through the unreported, everyday tragedies of life that always seem to matter more.
One that stands out for Freddie Charles of Laguna Hills involved comforting a young woman whose 5-year-old daughter died unexpectedly from an unknown medical condition. Since the father was out of town, Charles said, the mother was alone at the hospital, enveloped in silence and perched for hours beside her dead daughter's bed.
Charles, 57, was ready with information: when the coroner would come, why an autopsy would be needed, how and when to choose a mortuary. But none of that mattered on this call. She wound up doing little more than joining the woman in her stillness. And strangely, she left feeling as though she made a tremendous difference in the grieving mother's life.
"Sometimes there's absolutely nothing you can say and nothing you can offer," Charles said. "Sometimes the only job you have is touching a shoulder or a hand and letting them feel another human being beside them. . . . I've never done anything so worthwhile in my entire life."
When a 14-year-old girl suffered an aneurysm one night last year and swiftly fell into a coma, Clifford Lester of Anaheim was called to be with the family, who faced an emotional, eight-hour wait while the girl underwent brain surgery.
Lester, 44, sat with them at the hospital. He listened to relatives talk about the girl and their tightly knit, Christian family. He fetched answers from busy doctors and provided practical information about long-term medical care and insurance. And when, some 12 hours later, the family wanted to pray, Lester, who is Jewish, found himself joining in the circle.
"You do what feels right at the time, and that's different in every situation," Lester said.
"And when it's over, you come away feeling incredibly fulfilled and incredibly grateful of the blessings you have in your own life."
Information on Trauma Intervention Programs: (714) 314-0744.