When there is a deadly car accident, a tragic suicide or the devastating homicide of a family member in Berrien County, sheriff deputies are often the first on the scene.
“These are the worst moments in peoples’ lives,” said Berrien County Sheriff Paul Bailey. “They need comfort and compassion. We are fortunate to have volunteer chaplains and victim services advocates who can support these broken-hearted families while our officers gather the evidence and information they need.”
The Berrien County Sheriff Office Victim Services Advocates Program and Volunteer Chaplains Program both started under Sheriff Bailey’s watch more than a decade ago. Both are nonprofit organizations which use no county tax dollars to fund purchasing supplies, uniforms, books and support materials, or training programs.
“Our program dollars come from fundraisers, grants and donations,” Bailey said.
One long-time donor is Conybeare Law Office, P.C., a Southwest Michigan law firm with offices in St. Joseph and Kalamazoo.
“Ever since I reached out to Attorney Barry Conybeare to help us set up our 501(c)(3) status for our Victim Services Advocates Program, he and his firm have responded to our funding requests for various needs,” said Bailey. Those requests range from paying the Advocates Program’s annual insurance premium to recently covering the costs for local chaplains to attend the International Conference of Police Chaplains training in Lexington, Kentucky.
Longtime volunteer chaplain Wayne Shearier says his work with the Berrien County Sheriff Office program differs from caring for the spiritual needs of his congregation. He explained how volunteer chaplains provide support without promoting their own religious beliefs, and this requires ongoing training to know how spiritually to approach each heart-wrenching crisis.
“The landscape is always changing, and it’s good to get ideas from other parts of the country on how to support our grieving community members, as well as our deputies. The tragedies and brutality our officers regularly handle can take a toll on them,” said Chaplain Shearier. “I am very proud to work with our sheriff office.”
Shearier said the Volunteer Chaplains Program appreciates financial donations to cover training. Because chaplains are called out any time of day or night, they could use additional chaplains from the southwest corner of the county, he said. Those interested in donating or volunteering can visit berriencounty.org/687/Volunteer-Chaplains.
MaryAnn Richmond, president of the Victim Services Advocates Program, says her volunteers also fill a vital role during times of tragic deaths. Volunteers come from all walks of life across Berrien County, and often have gone through their own personal tragedies. These volunteers accompany the deputies to give emotional support to the victims and provide a packet of resources to assist them through their crises.
“We currently need additional volunteers,” said Richmond. “You must be at least 21 years old and have a driver’s license. During your interviews, we will see if this is a good fit, and then we will provide training. Our volunteers work with an absolutely wonderful group of people.”
She said anyone interested in knowing more about the program or volunteering may contact her at (269) 983-7141 Ext. 7242, or visit berriencounty.org/683/Victim-Services-Advocates.
Attorney Conybeare said both volunteer programs align with his law firm’s goals to help people during their most difficult times. He appreciates Sheriff Bailey reaching out for funding help.
“Our firm represents people who are seriously injured or have lost loved ones in car crashes,” said Conybeare. “We don’t see our clients in the minutes after the accident, but these compassionate chaplains and victim services advocates do. They provide the care our hurting families need right away — we continue caring for them days later. These programs are examples of good people and law enforcement officers serving our communities during our toughest times. I urge others to give their resources and time to support them, too.”
Conybeare Law Office is the largest full-service personal injury firm in Southwest Michigan. It is headquartered at 519 Main St., St. Joseph, and has offices at 5955 W. Main St., Kalamazoo. The firm’s attorneys provide representation for victims of automobile accidents, medical malpractice, product liability, premises liability and animal attacks, and also handle employment law, civil rights, worker’s compensation and social security and veteran’s disability claims. To discuss a claim, please call (269) 769-BEAR.