In a crisis situation, first responders are tasked with assessing the scene and rendering aid where it is needed. Most of the time, they are police officers, paramedics and firefighters. But another group of people is tasked with rendering aid for injuries that may not be so apparent.
That is the job of the Crescenta-Cañada YMCA’s new Chaplain Corps.
Launched in January by Chaplain Mark Yeager, Crescenta-Cañada YMCA’s Chaplain Services director, the program has partnered with the Crescenta Valley Sheriff’s Dept. Clergy Council and the Community Emergency Response Team.
Made up of a network of volunteer counselors from all walks of life and beliefs, the Chaplain Corps. provides free counseling services on an individual basis and works with local authorities to provide counseling to people affected by crisis situations – including the first responders themselves, said Yeager.
“It’s a lot of listening and just being present,” said Chaplain Corps trainee Chris Motte. “You can help them come to grips with it. Most of the time they are going to need more counseling and ongoing support.”
The Chaplain Corps is a component of the YMCA’s established Chaplain Services Program. Volunteer chaplains may become chaplains, chaplain associates, or chaplain advocates. Each tier of chaplain requires a certain degree of training, which the Chaplain Services Program provides.
Training includes multiple classes in disaster relief and training mandated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), including National Incident Management System (NISM) training. Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) and psychological first aid training are also provided. And each chaplain is taught how to work with local authorities in order to provide the most effective psychological first aid to victims of a crisis.
Yeager trains his chaplain candidates to handle all types of scenarios. This, he says, allows the chaplains to respond to anything from a fire to a teenager looking for advice. Training may last several weeks and includes supervised field work at Hope of the Valley Mission, a homeless shelter in Sun Valley. Trainees work with new arrivals as they come into the shelter.
“A lot of times, people on their first intake are in crisis or trauma mode, they’ve never been there before, so we want to be able to help diffuse any challenges that they may be having,” said Yeager.
This extensive training is what Yeager calls “back-end training.” And, Yeager stresses, his chaplains do not function as proselytizers for any church.
“I think it’s really important, no matter who you’re dealing with, to get them to realize that they are not alone, that the feelings they are experiencing are normal and, that as time goes by, it will fade,” said the Rev. Paige Eaves, Chaplain Corps trainee and pastor of Crescenta Valley United Methodist Church. “You will be fine, you will be okay.”
On March 1, a La Cañada High School student committed suicide by jumping off a school building. La Cañada resident and chaplain associate Cindy Sheets was at the school the day following the suicide along with Yeager, functioning as a liaison between the school and the La Cañada Unified School District.
Although touched by the incident, Sheets believes the Chaplain Corps training allowed her to put aside her emotions for the time being and assist the school’s students and staff in dealing with the crisis.
“In general, there were lots of kids who were confused, concerned and sad,” she said. “It was a very normal response to an abnormal occurrence. I felt very glad that I had the skills to help. I think every counselor and therapist absolutely helped.”
About 60 counselors were at the 2,100-student campus the following week.
A licensed marriage counselor, Sheets had no idea where the Chaplain Corps would take her when she signed up. She considers it a second career.
“If I’ve helped one person get through what they are going through, it makes me feel like I have done something worthwhile,” she said.
As a financial planner, Motte, a member of the YMCA’s Christian Emphasis Committee, which strives to emphasize the YMCA’s Christian principles, has a lucrative and challenging job. But at the end of the day, he would go home feeling empty. Teaching in his church for the past 15 years, however, has left him feeling like a “million bucks,” he said. He knows he has found his true calling. Still a financial planner by day, Motte feels nourished by the work he is being trained to do in the Chaplain Corps at the end of the day.
“It is an extension of what I do as a teacher,” Motte said. “The bottom line is, we need each other. Life is not easy, and we need each other to help us through.”
Eaves feels her role as a pastor will help her become a successful chaplain at the YMCA and is excited about the prospect of joining forces with the sheriff’s department’s Clergy Council, where she is also a member.
“For me, if I’ve helped one person get through what they are going through, it makes me feel like I have done something worthwhile,” Eaves said.