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Helping those in crisis

By MARY CALLAHAN
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

They need to be prepared for anything, those folks who don the black jackets of the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Chaplaincy and rush out into the day or night to help someone else in need.

They’re often exposed to extremely traumatic scenes or pressed to comfort people confronting the most profound grief of their lives.


DRIVEN TO SERVE: BreeAnn Crespan, 30, deputy senior law enforcement chaplain, joined the chaplaincy service when she was 23. (JEFF KAN LEE / The Press Democrat)

Sometimes all they can do to help is stand there and listen, or offer a hand. Or there might be phone calls to make, kids to pick up from school, dishes to wash, or instructions to take down for later reference.

But Deputy Senior Chaplain BreeAnn Crespan, who joined the chaplaincy at the tender age of 23, said the reward is knowing that people in crisis, who have no idea which way to turn, have someone by their side who does.

“I love it,” said Crespan, now 30, “because I know the need is there.”

Formed in 1999 as a resource for local law enforcement personnel, the chaplaincy is an interfaith group of trained volunteers who provide on-call assistance to officers dealing with some of life’s most tragic situations.

They may be traffic fatalities, suicides, homicides, sudden infant deaths or other tragedies where help is needed.

Law enforcement officers on the scene are generally too tied up with investigative work to provide the emotional support loved ones need. That’s where the chaplains come in.

“Every situation is different, and we don’t know what we’re going into,” Executive Director Warren Hayes said. “But our goal it to be sensitive to the victim and get them what they ask for and what they need.”

Though participants once wore clerical collars to distinguish themselves from civilians and law enforcement personnel, chaplaincy officials say the group is not about religion but about offering compassion and comfort during catastrophe — without agenda, judgment or proselytizing.

Crespan, who worked at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital as a business coordinator for trauma services when she first learned about the chaplaincy, now holds a civilian job in the Rohnert Park Public Safety Investigations Bureau.

Exposure to medical and emotional trauma early on, even as a young teen, likely played a role in pushing her toward work in the chaplaincy, she said.

She said those who apply to join often cite a desire to serve others through the chaplaincy that they can’t entirely articulate.

“People just say they’re drawn to it,” Crespan said. “There’s something out there that draws them to it.”

There are about 40 active chaplains at present, usually scheduled for two 24-hour on-call shifts each month, running 8 a.m. to 8 a.m., Crespan said. Members may go numerous shifts without a callout, or may be part of an incident for which several chaplains are needed at once.

Part of the job also involves providing support to police and emergency personnel affected by their own interaction with people in trauma.

The chaplaincy is not for everyone, of course, and is sometimes so emotionally taxing that those involved need to take a break. They may even decide after several years that they have done their share, Hayes said.

But Crespan is always looking for those who want to help, and, as director of the six-month chaplaincy academies held periodically, recruiting applicants. Candidates must be compassionate listeners who can stay calm and have the stamina to stand by for what might be hours in a crisis. They need to have respect for law enforcement and be willing to take direction from whoever is at charge in a given scenario.

Those interested will be interviewed and undergo a background check in advance of the six-month training, which begins Feb. 21 and runs from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursdays.

More information and applications are are available online at the chaplaincy web site: www.sonomalawchaplains.com. Interested candidates also can leave a message at 538-4700.

(You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.)