Las Vegas Sun

September 20, 2018

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Program offers support in the wake of tragedy in Las Vegas and beyond

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Steve Marcus

Jill Roberts, CEO of Trauma Intervention Program of Southern Nevada, is shown with program volunteers Christina, left, and Cynthia at Las Vegas Fire & Rescue Station Friday, Feb. 16, 2018.

When does TIP respond?

The organization works to train first responders, and when police, fire crews, paramedics and hospital staffs deem an incident to be traumatic, they request TIP volunteers. To learn more about the program, its resources, or to become a volunteer, visit tipoflasvegas.org.

To donate

TIP is a nonprofit organization that relies on grants from local government, fundraisers and donations. To donate, visit tipoflasvegas.org/donate.

Jill Roberts was in bed during the frantic moments after a shooter began raining bullets on concert attendees October 1 on the Las Vegas Strip.

Until her phone rang: “Turn on the news, get your people and get going,” said the voice of a Metro Police official on the other line.

At a wedding reception elsewhere in the Valley, a “Can you be ready?” text message to Christina (who keeps her last name private) confirmed rumblings she heard about a shooting.

Roberts’ sleep and Christina’s celebratory mood soon transformed to dreadful walks through bloody floors at Las Vegas hospitals, where they consoled and aided those who had just been affected by the actions of a lone gunman.

That night, the women were part of the cavalry of more than 20 staff members from the Trauma Intervention Program of Southern Nevada (TIP) that responded to festival grounds and medical facilities.

On any given day and time, TIP has professionally trained volunteers ready to respond to traumatic events. When an incident unfolds in the Las Vegas Valley, they are first responders of sorts, allowed past yellow police tape to provide emotional and practical assistance to survivors of ghastly tragedies.

That fateful night, it wasn’t just civilians who needed consoling. At University Medical Center, law enforcement personnel cried privately, Christina said. “You’re hearing people that you look up to as being strong, [who were] not able to hold it together, and understandably—this was so much different.”

During the next 10 days, TIP responded to 65 shooting-related calls, helping more than 3,000 survivors, victims’ families, first responders and even hospital janitors. “We were able to answer every call, every request,” said Roberts, the organization’s CEO.

That event represented only a small portion of the 1,500-plus calls to which TIP responded in 2017.

• • •

While paramedics and cops are equipped with life-saving equipment and weapons, a TIP volunteer carries basic tools—such as tissues or stuffed animals for younger survivors—that help them nurse emotional wounds.

Most important, they provide empathy, a patient and listening ear, and firsthand understanding of traumatic experiences. In an effort to protect their identities and those personal experiences, what they don’t carry is their last names.

But they do carry a red resource booklet.

On a recent Friday morning at the organization’s headquarters, which is tucked inside a central-Valley fire station, Roberts and Christina were joined by Cynthia, a field volunteer. The women shared somber and sobering experiences.

“I had seen this red book before,” Cynthia said of the TIP resource guide.

Nine years ago, before she was a volunteer, tragedy struck her own family.

“To me, when I go on a suicide [call], while I can’t tell the family, I understand what they’re going through. It makes me feel like I’m giving back,” said Cynthia, who works for a police department. “Just the fact that I know what they’re going through, it just helps me to help them.”

• • •

A mental health professional with more than 20 years of on-field experience founded the nonprofit organization in 1985 in San Diego. It has since expanded to 18 regional chapters, which cover more than 75 cities. TIP “is the largest operator of emergency services volunteer programs in the nation,” according to its website.

The Southern Nevada chapter, formed 24 years ago, has 60 volunteers on staff. Each is placed on an on-call log for three 12-hour shifts a month.

Before being TIP-certified, volunteers must go through a 35-hour academy, followed by a three-month training with field officers, and subsequent months of continuing education.

In one of the classes, the volunteers are instructed to write down the six most important aspects of their lives.

The items are then laid out in front of them, and they have to throw each of them away one at a time, Roberts said. “By the end of the exercise, everyone is just in tears.”

Roberts likened it to real-time tragedy. “When we’re with people, their most important things are being taken away from them. And what we’re feeling—just thinking about our important things being taken away—is their reality,” multiplied by 100, she added.

• • •

Christina had gone to murder scenes before, but this wasn’t like anything anyone in Las Vegas had previously experienced. She arrived to UMC to find “so much blood everywhere,” soaking floors, clothes and body parts, she said.

She saw a chaplain with a family, and she accompanied a concert attendee who’d lost his wife at the hospital.

“There was just so much going on. You were in it,” Christina said. Family members of the man were still trapped on the Strip, and he was devastated. “I’ll be honest, tears did fall,” she said. “When the man saw emotion,” he realized there wasn’t a robot standing next to him.

Roberts was tasked with assisting physicians delivering death notifications at Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center.

“It was surreal, it was absolutely surreal; it was chaos, but controlled chaos,” Roberts said.

At the hospital, Roberts tried to console a woman who had lost her husband. “Here she is finding out that her husband had died, and she was very emotional. She was very much in shock. But as she’s processing this, she hears someone crying in the next room, and she stopped and said, ‘Oh my gosh, someone else is being told that their loved one just died. I feel so bad for them.’ ”

• • •

On October 3, Roberts opened her email to find a message from a student asking for the names of the volunteers and an address to send cards.

“When we got the box, it was the first time I cried after October 1,” Roberts said. That’s because the return address read Newtown, Connecticut.

The card writers were siblings of victims from the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre, and others were at the school during the rampage.

“She said that was their way of giving back to another community that felt the same way they did,” Roberts said. “These kids knew a lot more.”

“They only have your name. They don’t know who you are personally, but they know who you are because they experienced it,” Christina said.

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.