COAST CITIES — During one shift, Dana Roberts comforted a father who had just learned his toddler died after being struck by a car.
A simple hand squeeze between them transcended the language barrier (the father only spoke Spanish, which she is learning but isn’t yet fluent in.)
Another time, Roberts was on the scene shortly after a woman had received news that her mother passed away. Roberts helped the woman, who was understandably frantic, to locate her mom’s social security number. The woman later said she appreciated the simple, albeit important assistance immensely.
Roberts is a volunteer with TIP (Trauma Intervention Program), a nonprofit that aids citizens in the hours following a natural death, crime, suicide, accident or other crisis. Police officers, firefighters and paramedics are often busy with their own duties in the aftermath of a traumatic event, resulting in a need for emotional support.
“We’re not there to fix the situation, because you can’t fix it when someone has died,” Roberts said. “We’re there to help them through those first hours and let them realize they can get through it.”
Roberts underwent 50 hours of training after signing up for TIP in September. Classroom lectures and role-playing sessions detailed everything from the ins and outs of a crime scene to interacting with those struck by tragedy.
“They teach you how to approach people who are going through the worst day of their lives,” Roberts said. “You learn what to say, what not to say, how to help them, what they probably need they, what they don’t even know they need.”
The training is important because each emotionally charged scene calls for a different tact. Some people might demand a lot of attention, while others might be confrontational if they don’t have space.
“We call it ‘dancing the dance,’” Roberts said. “You feed off of what they need. Sometimes they’re going to need somebody to call the mortuary. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense what they need. They want somebody to help them do the dishes. Some might think, why would you want to do the dishes when your husband just died in the other room? But if that’s what they want, that’s what we do.”
And it’s necessary that volunteers check their preconceptions at the door, Roberts said. For instance, in the event a child dies, some might assume family members are the only ones who demand attention. But the child’s caretaker could be equally devastated and benefit from comfort as well, she noted.
To help those affected navigate the tough time, talking with them and “drawing their story out” often helps them calm down, she said. Other times, words fail.
“I’m not a touchy, feely person, but I learned a hand on the back goes a long ways,” she added.
Roberts, who is an engineer by trade, signed up because the program presented an opportunity to provide a vital service to the community. She said the role requires someone who is compassionate but doesn’t internalize the occasionally gruesome scenes.
“You can’t feed into the tragedy,” she said. “You have a job to do.”
She did have one worry before volunteering: That some victims might find TIP volunteers intrusive, but that hasn’t been the case so far.
“After we leave a scene, we get amazing feedback and notes from people who said they would have been lost without us,” Roberts said.
“Many TIP volunteers are people who once benefited from the program’s service,” she added.
She lives in Carlsbad and is among 40 volunteers who serve the North County coastal cities. TIP launched in San Diego in 1985, and has since started in other cities across the nation.
“We’re continuously expanding,” said Jacquey Stanick, North County crisis team manager. “A recognition exists among more in law enforcement that people should be by the side of those in trauma.”
Stanick noted that the program runs on donations and grants.
Several weeks ago at a community event, Sheriff’s Capt. Robert Haley and others from the department expressed their appreciation for Roberts and the other TIP volunteers.
Beyond providing emotional support that might otherwise be missing, a TIP volunteer must also serve as a liaison between detectives and family and friends at the scene.
Clear communication is required so both sides are kept up to speed on the latest updates.
“You learn to speak clearly so there’s no ambiguity,” Roberts said.
Roberts is on call from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. three times a month. During her shifts, she wears comfortable clothes. And she keeps her schedule open, so she’s free from appointments and even grocery store trips. For good reason: She might have to leave at the drop of a hat if a TIP dispatcher calls.
“We want to get to any scene within 20 minutes of getting a call no matter what,” she said.
A look inside her car further reveals the extent of her preparation. There are cases of water, a traffic vest, chairs for people to sit on and a plastic storage drawer contains hundreds of forms, including a list of mortuaries in the area.
“People dealing with grief might not realize they need to make so many plans,” Roberts said. “We’re there to help.”
Roberts said she plans to continue volunteering for the program.
“You can read testimonials on our website that show just how much people appreciate us,” she said.
To learn more or donate to TIP, visit tipsandiego.org.