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CURRENT ISSUE:  March 24, 2008
VOL. 46, NO. 6   •   Oakland, CA
Other front page story
Chaldean bishop: U.S. accountable for death of Iraqi archbishop
Teams reach out to victims’ families
Volunteers join with Catholic
Charities to aid families,
friends of murdered teenagers)
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For Oakland families and friends jarred by the violent death of a young loved one, Catholic Charities of the East Bay’s Crisis Response Support Network stands at the ready with its “ministry of presence.”

Within an hour after the Oakland Police Department calls to notify them of a homicide, CRSN crisis counselors deploy to the crime scene, the hospital or the family home, said Project Director Millie Burns.

“We are there to comfort, to provide answers, to help with procedural matters and to give intensive support” to relatives, friends and classmates, Burns said.

The program began last April, Burns said, with funds from Oakland’s violence prevention bill, Measure Y. It focuses on Oakland homicides where the victims are age 30 or younger.

So far this year, CRSN’s 10 volunteers, two part-time paid staffers and partner Marilyn Washington Harris of the Khadafy Foundation have responded to at least 21 homicides, Burns said. In 2007, teams responded to 60 murders.

The crisis counselors, whose backgrounds range from funeral director to social worker, immediately contact grieving families to help them apply for state victims’ assistance funds, to assist with funeral arrangements and to help with other details, like placing obituaries.
St. Columba Parish places a cross in front of their church each time a person is murdered in Oakland. The crosses, which include the person’s first name, their age and date of death, remain up throughout the year. The parish has been erecting the memorial crosses for several years.
The program, which has two Spanish-speaking teams, even recently helped a family obtain plane tickets and expedited passports to accompany their loved one’s body back to Mexico.

CRSN responders, who are trained on crime scene protocols and grief counseling, also link families to other programs in the Measure Y network, including mental health and faith-based groups.

In addition to helping with logistics, CRSN counselors offer emotional support. “We call it a ministry of presence,” Burns said.

Responders might sit quietly with the family, take them to run errands or simply “bounce the baby on their lap,” Burns said. They often attend victims’ funerals, she added.

CRSN counselor Myesha Walker was about to head to one such funeral when a relative of the victim called at the last minute, saying the family had no transportation to their loved one’s memorial.

Walker left work and picked them up. “Things like that . . . really put a smile on my face. I think, ‘I really helped someone,’” she said.

CRSN has increasingly provided support to schools — sometimes the same schools — which are hard-hit by the murder of a student, Burns said.

Myesha Walker’s team recently counseled grieving classmates at an Oakland charter high school following a homicide.

The San Francisco State University senior said she and her partner sat in a circle with the kids. “I told them they can jump, scream, whatever they want . . . I pass no judgment,” she said. “They just need someone to listen to them.”

Walker feels qualified to listen. Her cousin was killed in 2000, and she has a family background similar to the students, she said. Like many of them, she dropped in and out of school.

Burns said she plans to recruit more crisis counselors who have Walker’s comfort level with youth, as part of an overall emphasis on youth services.

“We’ve had an amazingly strong response from young people” as well as school counselors, who are “often grieving themselves,” Burns said.

Burns hopes the emergency fund, which now stands at $30,000 per year, can be doubled. CRSN uses the fund for immediate needs, like providing money to tide the family over until the next paycheck, buying clothes for the funeral, purchasing food, or bringing home a sibling from college.

She also wants to recruit more volunteers to reduce the amount of time the responders are on call, which currently can be weeks at a time. This would help to remedy burnout and turnover.

“It’s extremely stressful work,” Burns said, referring not only to the hours, but also the “constant immersion…in the violent murder of a child.”

Additionally, Burns wants to work more closely with Oakland parishes. “The spiritual connection is extremely important,” she said.

Father Jayson Landeza, pastor of Oakland’s St. Columba Parish and chaplain for the Oakland police and fire departments, has responded to homicide scenes alongside CRSN responders, and encourages their cooperation.

Their work “thoroughly enhances what I do,” Father Landeza said. “They can give support and follow-up that I can’t give.”

But Father Landeza expressed frustration over parishes’ lack of action in response to the growing violence in Oakland. “They need to get more involved in bringing peace to our streets,” he said.

Then he offered a few suggestions - join with Oakland Community Organizations in pressuring city leaders to address the causes of violence including poverty and drugs; engage with coalitions that are building programs to keep youngsters from joining gangs; train parents and children in conflict resolution.

Violence is touching every neighborhood, he said, and “We as Catholics need to be a more active presence to stop it. He is adamant that this call to action doesn’t just apply to parishes — like his — within whose borders the homicides are occurring.

St. Columba is known by many for its cluster of crosses alongside the church, each commemorating a homicide victim in Oakland for the year. There are more than 25 crosses so far for 2008; there were around 120 last year, said the priest.

It is inevitable that more crosses will be erected, and each will represent more work for CRSN. But Burns is confident her people will meet each call. “I am in awe of the people doing this work.”

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