Mandy Atkission sees people on the worst day of their lives. “It’s their 9/11,” she said.
A longtime volunteer with Trauma Intervention Program, she and her fellow volunteers provide information and emotional support to crime victims, disoriented elders and other people experiencing catastrophy.
“They’re completely lost,” she said. ‘Nobody expects (this), and it throws everybody into this whirlwind. It has a dramatic leveling effect. It brings rich people, poor people, educated people, everybody, to the same place because they don’t know what to do.”
Western North Carolina’s Trauma Intervention Program, or TIP, has as its goal what its name suggests – placing its volunteers between an often lethal event, such as a homicide, car accident, or suicide, and the trauma that ensues for its witnesses.
TIP volunteers nationwide are quickly summoned to soften the blow of a tragedy. They answer questions and provide comfort while emergency workers perform their critical tasks.
Rebecca Croft remembers when she knew that her work as a trauma intervention volunteer made that difference.
A married couple were passing through the Asheville area on their way to a new home in Virginia. They stopped in a public parking lot and took a nap in the car before pushing on to their final destination. When the woman awoke, she nudged her husband behind the wheel, but he didn’t move.
Croft met the woman in Mission Hospital, where her middle-aged husband was pronounced dead from an apparent heart attack. “She was in utter shock, like she was walking around in Jell-O." Croft sat with her, helped her contact her in-laws, made sure she had a place to sleep that night and helped her make arrangements for her husband’s body, over the course of three hours.
The puffy-eyed woman hugged Croft. “I don’t know what I would have done without you,” she told Croft.
“Ninety percent of our calls are in response to some sort of death. It could be a natural death, or it could be 90-year-old Mr. Jones died but Mrs. Jones doesn’t know what to do,” Atkission, TIP’s national executive director, said. Atkission is also executive director of TIP of Western North Carolina. That the regional chapter exists all all is the direct result of her efforts.
Trauma Intervention Program Inc, is a national nonprofit organization created 22 years ago that now exists in more than 250 cities and towns in the United States. Trained volunteers “provide emotional aid and practical support to victims of traumatic events and their families in the first few hours following a tragedy,” according to TIP’s website (tipnational.org).
TIPS volunteers are summoned by police, firefighters, emergency personnel and hospital workers to console and help family and friends after an natural or unexpected death. They aid victims of rape, assault, fire and other trauma. They help disoriented older people and people involved in motor vehicle accidents.
TIP got its start on the West Coast. Wayne Fortin, a mental health counselor, had the idea of providing emotional first aid to the survivors of everyday disasters and formed the volunteer program in San Diego in 1985.
In 1991, the nonprofit won the Innovations in State and Local Government Award from Harvard University and the Ford Foundation, considered the gold standard in awards to nonprofits and public agencies.
Atkission began working some 15 years ago at TIP in San Diego. Executive director of the San Diego affiliate, she was disappointed at leaving the organization behind when she learned she would need to relocate to Henderson County about six years ago.
Ultimately, she didn’t have to leave the organization. During advance trips to Buncombe County, she cultivated relationships with the Asheville police and fire departments.
As she was getting ready to move east, TIP’s national office offered her the job of a development officer. “My job then became to develop new programs in different areas in the country,” she said. When TIP of WNC began in late 2015, she was named its executive director.
The program currently supports every emergency agency in Buncombe County and has added the city of Hendersonville’s fire and police departments.
Closer to home, the group partners with Black Mountain’s police and fire departments. Local governments have agreed to finance the program at 12 cents per capita, with Buncombe County allotting $19,000 and Hendersonville offering $1,600.
TIP volunteers’ willingness to go anywhere in Buncombe County is the key to the group’s success. “We can’t just focus on, say, Black Mountain,” Atkission said, “because to cover the town 24/7, 365 days a year, we’d have to have enough people living there who are part of TIP.”
“So certainly if something happens,” she said, “whoever is on call is going to be the one responding. They might live in West Asheville, or they might live in Arden, and they would have to get to Black Mountain pretty quickly, and vice versa.”
As to the intangible and tangible benefits they bring to a scene, Atkission explains, “We are that caring, knowledgeable best friend and next door neighbor that has the resources that the family might need.
“But we also understand how the system works, so we can be a liaison between the family and the emergency responders.”
Thinking of volunteering? Candidates undergo 55 hours of training and must be caring and reliable, Atkission said.
TIP also provides support in missing persons cases. TIP’s role is limited in domestic violence cases since shelters are typically the intervening parties. But the group will often provide an intermediary role until the shelter takes over.
Atkission has served in diverse places and in diverse TIP roles, but she sees a commonality of people in their reactions and needs.
“Most people, regardless of where they live, have not had this type of situation happen,” she said.
The Asheville Citizen-Times contributed to this story.