By: Katie Sobiech
Every minute of every day, victims in our country go unnoticed and/or do not get the justice they deserve. This is what makes a program such as Victim Assistance Program (VAP), gold. VAP is there 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to help individuals as best as they can, making their journey less painful.
“We always say we’re the best kept secret in Akron. A lot of people don’t know about us. We’re not exactly in the fanciest part of town…” Shelly Koch, Director of Development at VAP, said.
Their teamwork with the Akron Police Department and many others in the county allows them to cover much ground, and has formed a great network of individuals who are on call to help those in crisis.
“We are the resource of resources. If there’s something we can’t help you with, we will find someone who can help you,” Missy Klein, Community Education Liaison for VAP, shared.
What’s Going on Lately
Do you ever wonder about the state of our city and what some of the biggest issues in the Akron area are? Klein says that burglary and home invasions are some of the biggest problems, and are on the rise.
“The economy has severely affected the crime rate. People are out of work, and desperate people do desperate things. We find that they are more violent in nature because they’re almost vying for whatever it is they need,” Klein said.
Suicide rates are also on the rise.
“The suicide rates are kind of crazy because people think they just can’t deal…can’t go on. (They think) ‘I’m in foreclosure, I’ve lost my job, my wife left me and took the children, my husband left’…,” Klein continued to explain.
“Missy and the advocates have gone to suicides quite often. Unfortunately we’re very close to the ‘Y Bridge’ and have had situations where we’ve had to go out to the bridge and help a family member identify a loved one,” Koch said of the infamous bridge known as the location for many suicides in the Akron area.
Domestic violence is also an issue. Approximately 75% of their walk-in traffic is for domestic protection orders.
Under the Radar
Events happen around the clock and VAP must always be prepared.
Recently there was a suicide inside of an area Walgreens. VAP was on the scene for crisis intervention.
“There were twenty to thirty people in that store when a gentleman decided to end his life there. We received a phone call and had two advocates respond immediately,” Klein said. “Our job is to get to the crime scene and pull away the effected individuals so the police can do their job.”
The advocates took down all of the names of the witnesses that were in the stores and made phone calls to set up a crisis intervention for them several days later.
Furnace Street Mission
“We (VAP) came from the Furnace Street Mission. Dr. Denton’s father started it in 1926,” Klein shared.
The Furnace Street Mission, though small, can’t be missed with the large cross on the roof.
“It used to help offenders, and our building was a halfway house at one point. Then, somewhere along the line, when VAP started they realized that they were helping the offender, but what about the poor victims. That’s where it started and they mapped out this whole program,” Koch said.
Furnace Street Mission has recently been transformed into the Safety Forces Chaplaincy Center, a support center for first responders in Summit County, including police, fire fighters and advocates, such as those at VAP who encounter tragedies.
“It’s for them to have a place to go that’s paper free and confidential. Officers have three times the divorce rate, three times the depression rate. You know, there are things they have to deal with… The alcoholism rates are three times higher than what the lay person would be because of what they endure and what they see,” Klein shared.
“What they have to deal with is very traumatic,” she continued, “The suicide rates among officers in the nation are ridiculous. We hope to help stop some of that as well. And domestic violence (is an issue) because of what they’re exposed to every day.”
Here they can speak with a peer or counselor to release what’s been bottled up inside.
“It’s a safe place for them to come and get rid of what they need to get rid of without being judged,” Klein said.
Counseling is available for their families as well, free of charge.
For those interested, the VAP program offers great interning opportunities for students to get experience in the field.
This past semester they had 22 field placements, most of them working on their Master’s Degrees in Social Work.
“They’re all working on their degrees. They come from the University of Akron, Kent State University and a couple of other schools,” Rev. Robert Denton, Executive Director of VAP, said.
Denton is an adjunct professor at the University of Akron, teaching the Crisis Intervention and Disaster Intervention courses. It is now even possible to get a certificate in Victim Studies, along with a Bachelors degree, at Akron University.
“We do a lot of education with the students,” Denton said, “They get a chance to see the real world. It’s not all glamorous. They get a chance to see that it takes an organization and it’s a group of people trying to work together to do things. It introduces them to the realities rather than the textbooks.”
Interns shadow advocates, seeing trauma first-hand.
“They go out in the field and they’ll have a crisis intervention. For instance, for some reason last year there were a lot of suicides in the schools. Many kids and teachers were traumatized, so we go in with a team. It’s always helpful to have extra hands and fresh ideas,” Koch said.
Allison Gingo, a former intern, and part-time advocate for VAP at the Akron Children’s Hospital’s Care Center, is finishing up her Master’s Degree in Social Work at the University of Akron.
“It’s very rewarding in the sense that you’re trying to help and reach out to people,” she said.
She meets with children who have endured sexual abuse.
“I talk with the non-offending parent and kind of offer emotional support and try to explain the process to them and advocate for counseling,” she explained of her role.
Bev Walter, a loyal volunteer, worked in retail for years. It wasn’t until about a year and a half ago that she decided on New Years that she would like to start doing volunteer work.
“These are some of the hardest working, least paid people I have ever met in my life and if I had to do it all over again, I would have started in a non-profit a long time ago. It’s just amazing,” she said, “There’s a lot to do and we’re always busy.”
Remembering the Victims
Another part of the program, Victim Recognition, occurs in several events throughout the year, including the Angel Tree Ceremony, holiday basket giveaway, Victim Rights Week Candlelight Vigil and Luncheon, and Kids Need a Firm Foundation picnic for kids.
“It’s a nice time of reflection for those that have experienced a loss, whether directly or indirectly,” Klein said of the Candlelight Vigil.
Families of homicide victims are invited to the Angel Tree Ceremony in December.
“We have a personalized angel that we hang on the tree for them. Unfortunately we are now up to 600 angels that we put on the trees,” Koch said.
The toy drive for victims starts right after Thanksgiving.
“We make toy bags up for families that we or the officers have worked with to make sure that they have some level of gifts for their kids at Christmastime, because otherwise they are unable to do it,” Klein said.
They also give away food baskets with an entire meal, including a turkey, at Thanksgiving.
Every August they have a picnic for kids, Kids Need a Firm Foundation, which they work on in conjunction with the Akron Police Department.
“It’s a day where the children we have worked with closely can come and have a day of relaxation. They’ve been exposed to trauma or crime and this gives them a day where they can kick back and enjoy the day,” Klein shared.
They have a great lunch, band, fishing on the lake, and arts and crafts.
For more information or if you would like to help Victim Assistance please visit http://www.victimassistanceprogram.org.