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published: Wednesday, June 19, 2013
Volunteer chaplains offer support for HCSO
By BARRY FOSTER
SEBRING - Last month, Highlands County commissioners gave the go-ahead for the Highlands County Sheriff's Office to begin a program embedding a trained Emergency Medical Services paramedic with their Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team. But the Sheriff's Office already has embedded in its department, experts in healing of another type - spiritual.
It is known as the Volunteer Chaplain Program. Currently there are four members on the staff, including Rev. Richard Norris of Trinity Lutheran Church in Lake Placid, who spearheaded the idea locally.
"The proposal was made about two years ago, then it took another year to get the applications in," Norris said.
After a winnowing process, the list was trimmed to four, including Norris, Bill Trucano who is a Baptist minister in Sebring, Pastor Jon Beck of First Baptist Church of Avon Park, and Allen Altvater III, who most recently served with First Baptist Church of Lake Josephine.
For their dedication to serving the men and women in green who patrol Highlands County, the four have been selected as the News-Sun Unsung Heroes for the month of June.
Each of them bring different skill sets to the unit. Altvater has worked with youth, Beck has military experience, while Chicano is with the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief Program for Florida. Norris himself has been trained by FEMA and previously worked with police in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. before moving to the Sunshine State.
Norris said the denominational differences were secondary to the overall purpose of the unit, which is to provide aid and comfort.
"We are there for crisis intervention in the short term - to meet needs at that moment," he explained. "Of course, if they want to talk it over at length later, we are available for that as well."
Qualifications were fairly rigorous, with applicants required - among other things - to have ecclesiastical training, five years in local service and to present endorsements from their local church or denominational hierarchy. They also were given a background check as part of the process.
"We wanted to make sure we have a quality program with quality staff," Norris said.
The chaplain's main function is to serve as counsel for the HCSO's 300-plus employees ranging from deputies to staff to detention officers. In fact, the clergymen ride with deputies on patrol on a regular basis.
"We also go in and chat with staff at the different locations - both at the sub-stations as well as the main headquarters," he said.
It is not unusual to see one of the unit's members giving the invocation at an awards ceremony, memorial service or other Sheriff's Office function.
"Sheriff Benton has done a wonderful job embracing us, giving us all the tools that we need as well as providing us with all the information that we need to get," he said.
In fact, there have been a number of ongoing educational programs the chaplains have participated in, including the opportunity to attend the International Conference Police Chaplains training program in Orlando.
"Being a Sheriff's Office chaplain involves some very specialized situations and we now have been trained how to minister to the men and women of our law enforcement community through what can be some very difficult times," he said. "Just the presence of a chaplain many times can be a calming influence."
Indeed, the incidents often can be high stress situations, with pastors available for counseling at many different kinds of crime scenes ranging from shootings, to suicides or domestic violence.
"Some of these things can be tough on the officers, the investigators and the CSI team," he said. "It's their job, but remember they are people too - people with emotions. It's a tough job; they never know what they are going to get."
Although the chaplain program is basically for sheriff's personnel, they also are available for victim's families who may request to see a minister.
"Our officers are highly skilled, highly trained," Norris said. "But when it comes to explaining that a loved one has died, they may want some assistance from a pastor or a clergyman."
The pastors also serve as a conduit for citizens in such situations, contacting the ministers of victims or their families as well as providing other assistance such as making arrangements with The Salvation Army or Red Cross.
"Many times we work through the process with the Sheriff's Office victim's advocate to facilitate aid," he said.
In addition to working with the Victim's Advocate program, the chaplains also have had training with the Children's Advocacy Center.
Norris said the volunteer chaplain program is a rewarding experience.
"To be able to bring some comfort to an officer or a family member during a terrible time - that is what it's all about," he said.
At the scene, the chaplains are easily identifiable, they have shirts that indicate they are clergy as well as badges and even a department-issued bulletproof vest should they be dispatched to a high-risk scene.
For the time being, the staff will remain at four, with representatives from all three communities. Once the program is established, then thought would be given to augmenting it in some fashion.
"We don't have any female pastors with us just yet and that is something I would like to see in the future," he said. "They are able to deal with things we may not be as familiar with."
Apart from the program, Norris said the ministers pray for staff members on a regular basis, keeping them on an ongoing prayer list during their daily devotionals.
dumbfounded (by: blindman? - 6/20/2013)
A Jewish rabbi? Is there any other kind?
Lack of diversity. (by: Voice of Truth - 6/19/2013)
So they are all Protestant pastors? (I am also Protestant/Methodist) Wouldn't it make more sense to have one Catholic Priest, one Evangelical Protestant Pastor (i.e. Baptist, Pentecostal, ect.), one Mainline Protestant Pastor (i.e. Methodist, Presbyterian, ect.) and maybe a Jewish Rabbi. I know it would be hard to find qualified members but this would make more sense. HCSO is a diverse agency and the chaplains should be diverse to fit the needs of all faiths if possible. for example, is a Catholic member going to be able to relate to a Baptist or Lutheran Pastor? Probably not. Just like a Baptist member would not be able to relate to a Catholic Priest. I am not condemning any of th chaplains as they are all following scripture and trying to make a difference. I wish them all the best.
barry foster (by: jim - 6/19/2013)
jim terry needs to speak to barry asap 381 9871
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