Supporting victims of crime, tragedy and disaster 24/7
By Charlene Peck
Supporting victims of crime, tragedy and disaster 24/7.
Ann Swallow is the Parry Sound Victim Services Executive Director.
Charlene Peck/Lifestyles photo
April 30, 2012
After seeing a newspaper ad for victim crisis assistance volunteers, she knew she didn’t have the money to give – but she had time to offer.
“I believe that sometimes people need the support of another human being,” explains Astrid, who became a volunteer with Parry Sound Victim Services just over five years ago. “Like tourists coming here – let’s says there is a couple and there is an accident and the husband is killed. So what happens with the wife who is alone and has to wait hours before family and friends are here?
“We have situations where the wife is sitting with the little one and the husband is in the next room in the hospital dying,” she says. “They need another human body there and that’s where we kick in.”
Volunteers like Astrid are called to provide support, suggestions and a listening ear in any situations that place an individual in a crisis state. They respond to all types of calls, including property-related crimes such as a break and enter, motor vehicle accidents, sexual assault and domestic violence.
Still, Astrid doesn’t really like the word “victim”.
“Because a lot of people don’t see themselves as a victim,” she explains. “They think you are a victim if there is a robbery or homicide, but not if there is a suicide or sudden death or accident.”
For Astrid, it’s rewarding just to be able to “be there”. What she does find difficult, is not always being able to learn the outcome after she leaves a call.
“You wonder how are they doing, are they okay?” she says.
With a shortage of victim service volunteers in the district, Astrid assumes 12 to 14 on-call nights a month. Sometimes that can mean not getting any calls for weeks. Or she might receive two calls in a night and then have to double back to her full time job in the morning.
“I think you do this when you really believe in something, and as in this case, you do it with no complaints at all,” she says.
Astrid’s dedication is common among the 30 Parry Sound victim services volunteers who serve the District from the French River to MacTier and east to Novar, Callandar and Algonquin Park. They provide immediate, short term crisis intervention and referral services to persons affected by crime, tragedy and disaster 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
“These people do really difficult work,” says Parry Sound Victim Services Executive Director Ann Swallow. “It’s not fun work, and it’s not often that volunteers will give up their Christmas dinner and summer vacations. But these guys do.”
Usually, volunteers go to the scene of the crisis, including the police station and health centre.
“We get referrals from all emergency services: police, paramedic, fire and hospital,” says Swallow.
Victim services volunteer Edward had been a first responder with a local fire department for six years, but yearned to assist those affected by trauma, tragedy and disaster at a deeper level.
“I always wanted more contact with the people,” he explains. “You’d cut the patients out of cars, but you never really dealt with people one-on-one. It felt cold and I wanted to be more involved with helping the people directly.”
Eleven years ago he received training with Parry Sound victim services and now describes the volunteer work was what he expected – and more.
His toughest calls to receive involve sudden death.
“That’s the one that I cringe at the most,” he says. “And when I’m answering the call, I’m wondering why I ever got involved in this.”
Yet, in the past nine or ten years, sudden death calls have been the most rewarding for him.
“On the way home (from those calls), I’ve been really happy to have been there for somebody,” Edward reflects.
“Because there are a lot of people out there that don’t have support systems or people to rally around them in a difficult time.”
Sometimes, volunteers simply need to “be there” as a listening ear or offer practical assistance such as make phone calls for them. They might retrieve clothes from a vehicle involved in an accident or take a victim of domestic violence to the local women’s shelter.
“We’re not a counselling service ourselves but we definitely refer them on to professionals that can help them,” Edward says. “That’s a big part of what we do.”
Volunteers remain at the call until immediate family, or other support for the victim arrives.
For Marianne, volunteering with victim services was all about giving back.
“We’d had a lot of house fires in the Sundridge area where I live and it was amazing to see how the community pulled together for people who had lost everything,” reflects Marianne.
“What I love most about it, is that it’s anonymous,” she says. “You go in and help people manage their crisis and empower them to make their own decisions and then you can walk away.”
As for those 1:15 a.m. calls, Marianne admits that at first, she’s always a little frightened.
“But you never go alone, you always go in teams of two and it depends on the call, which of you feels comfortable taking the lead,” she explains.
A victim services volunteer since 1999, Marianne still finds she’s learning something new with every call. In addition, training for all volunteers and opportunities for networking with peers is ongoing.
To become a volunteer with the service, residents must first submit an application form, be interviewed by a panel of three people, provide the names of three references, undergo a criminal background check, go through 40 hours of standardized training and then successfully complete an evaluation.
Volunteers with Parry Sound victim services need only sign up for a minimum of four shifts – of their choice – each month.
The next Parry Sound Victim Services weekend training will be conducted in May. For more information contact Parry Sound Victim Services at 746-0508.
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