Story County has at least 251 paid professional emergency responders and staff, with more than 769 family members, hundreds of those being children, and this does not include the additional hundreds of community volunteer emergency responders and their families.
Pair those numbers with the fact that all of these emergency responders, both professional and volunteer, are exposed to human trauma and tragedy as well as personal danger, which can require instantaneous, complex decisions that are subject to incredible scrutiny and generate tremendous stress.
Let this information sink in for a minute.
In 2012, Central Iowa Emergency Services Chaplaincy (CIESC) was formed by a group of religious and community leaders to provide much-needed support to help emergency responders deal with the issues and challenges they face.
“We had several of us back in 2011-2012 who talked about the fact that there were hardly any public safety chaplain programs … and we knew there was a need for it,” said Capt. Barry Thomas, chief deputy with the Story County Sheriff’s Office. Thomas, who’s been with the Sheriff’s Office for over 26 years, said research into such a group started and they found a chaplain-public safety group that was located in Minnesota. “We invited a member (of that Minnesota group) to come down … and give a program.”
Ultimately, there was enough interest to establish CIESC which serves Story and Marshall counties. In Story County, the Ames Police Department and Story County Sheriff’s Office have chaplains. Ames Fire has been involved since the onset and utilizes the services of the police chaplain. Story County Emergency Management and other emergency response units, such as Story City Fire, have been supportive and regularly involved. There is also cooperation by this group with chaplains who serve other departments in the area.
Commander Jason Tuttle of the Ames PD, like Thomas, has been part of the development of the program from its onset. “When all of this started,” Tuttle said, “there were some events going on with officers in our department.” He said one officer had lost a child, and then Howard Snider, a sergeant with the Ames PD and a resident of Nevada, drowned. “We didn’t do as good a job supporting our employees as we should have” through these events, Tuttle said.
It became evident that officers and other emergency responders needed emotional support. “If we don’t have emotionally sound [officers and responders] on our streets … we’re not good for the people we serve,” Tuttle said.
Ron Matthews, who is retired from the American Red Cross, where he worked as a disaster team leader and a trainer for over 30 years, is the current president of CIESC. Matthews has himself responded to events like the San Francisco Earthquake of 1989 and to New York City after 9/11. He understands the huge toll that emergency response can take on those who are on the front lines.
“Our culture, our society, uses their (emergency responders’) work and experiences to provide drama and entertainment. But those dramatic incidents and dangers that are very real are less glamorous and less easily endured when they’re part of real life,” Matthews said.” Not to mention, he added, there is the stress of the extensive and immediate coverage by media of many of these traumatic events.
Therefore, Matthews said, there are times when responders need to have someone to talk to with total confidence and trust; someone who can also understand what they’re experiencing.
CIESC has the mission of developing, training and supporting chaplains who can serve the needs of emergency responders.
Kelly Vander Woude is an Ames pastor, who actually has a degree in criminal justice. “I had thought, earlier in life, that God was calling me to become a police officer,” he said. So when he found out through conversations with a retired pastor and his wife, friends of his, that the Ames PD was looking for a chaplain through CIESC, those conversations eventually led to him being chosen. He’s worked with the PD and other emergency responders in Ames for the past two, almost three years.
“I’ve had experiences and emotions that are all over the place,” Vander Woude said of his work with CIESC. “I get the joy and pleasure of not only getting to know officers, but hearing about their life and their family … and get the calls to help out with death notifications, as well as spending time with families that are processing some type of emotional trauma.” It’s a two-fold role that he’s in — serving the men and women in blue, along with all their staff at the PD, as well as going out with them into the community and serving the public.
In whatever he’s doing, he takes his role seriously and is honored to serve, he said. “I simply love people and love helping and serving.” Tuttle said Vander Woude has been very helpful to the emergency responders in Ames, who have utilized his abilities in a number of violent crime situations and with death notifications. Vander Woude’s presence is very helpful to everyone involved, he said.
Monty Woodward recently assumed the role of chaplain for the Story County Sheriff’s Department. Woodward had served as a volunteer chaplain with the jail population for several years prior, and still continues that role, as well. Woodward is a retired veteran of the U.S. Navy and served in several military law enforcement capacities.
“Because of the occupation and the things that they (the officers and staff) face, I am here to give them hope and support,” Woodward said. “I do a lot of listening, and try to give them some place to go (with what they’re feeling).”
Thomas said one thing the public may not understand about law enforcement officers is that they can be very closed off. Because of all they go through, he said, “we carry scars that the general public doesn’t see.” After you see enough tragedy, Thomas said, you can become hardened to it in some ways. But, it can also tear you up inside. “So it takes a very special person to work with us,” Thomas said, and he appreciates what Woodward brings to them. “He has a constant presence, and is around the office a lot of the week.” Woodward enjoys sitting in with dispatch and riding along with officers to get to know everyone and what they’re doing.
CIESC is made up of a civilian board of directors, many with direct current or past professional experience with emergency response and counseling, serving this nonprofit organization. Representatives of law enforcement agencies in the county who are active duty professionals are not voting members on the board, but do participate in meetings as advisors. Plus, they retain final authority in the selection, orientation and further training of the chaplain, and especially provide ongoing direct supervision and involvement of the chaplain in their department. The board meets monthly, or at least 10 times a year, and also has an executive committee, and teams that meet periodically to provide the initial screening of chaplaincy applicants and guide other community efforts. Most importantly the teams work on fundraising for the program, which was initially funded through a startup donation of $5,000 from the Ames Police Benevolent Association.
With volunteer chaplains, one may not think there is a lot of funding needed, but funds are needed and raising them is essential to keep the organization going.
“Financial support is our current primary need,” Matthews said. “The chaplains, board and advisors all do so voluntarily, giving generously of their time and personal resources for several years now.” But, “to enable these volunteer chaplains to perform their duties, we need resources that have a significant, direct cost.”
Liability insurance coverage, which Matthews calls a “very necessary resource in today’s world” is $1,700 a year. In addition, there are such costs as an annual independent audit of the nonprofit’s finances. There are also costs associated with specialized training (with other chaplaincy organizations on the specific issues involved in emergency response) and equipment, like all-weather clothing and uniforms. Even a single item such as a multi-season coat with chaplain identification can cost $200. Some of the departments are able to provide some of these needs, but CIESC sustains most of the costs involved. And while they use their own personal vehicles, chaplains need vehicle identification emblems — removable ones are about $65 — for when they respond to an emergency scene.
Matthews reminds the public that the chaplaincy service is available 24/7 every day of the year by a team effort of “dedicated, experienced volunteers who deserve our support and appreciation.” There is a continuing need for board members with relevant experience, as well as a pool of potential chaplain applicants. “Our leadership is always willing to talk with any organization or individual interested.”
“I truly know the personal, emotional impact, fatigue and stress these (emergency response) experiences can have both on the individual, as well as the family, who lives through it … I know well what it’s like to have someone who cares to listen in confidence, and to have their continued support,” Matthews said. He invites all residents of Central Iowa’s Story and Marshall counties who want to learn more about CIESC, who want to be part of CIESC or who want to give to the cause, to check out the website: www.centraliowachaplains.org or call him, 515-520-2479.