MECOSTA, OSCEOLA COUNTIES - The Mecosta County and Osceola County sheriff's offices are collaborating on a program to assist victims of a crisis - the Victim's Advocacy Program. "There was a unit present at our office a long time ago, and I am not sure what happened, but it wasn't being used anymore when I took office," Mecosta County Sheriff Brian Miller said. "I learned about (the program) while going through new sheriff training and it was something I felt would be important for us to have to be able to provide people with assistance in the case of a critical incident." Miller said he reached out to Sheriff Mark Cool in Osceola County and let him know of his intention to move forward with the program and ask if he was interested in participating. "A lot of times the people we are providing services to cross those county lines," he said. "Being more rural and smaller county offices, it will be good if we can work together on this." The Victim Services Team, which will work with both agencies, is being put in place to help families cope with the loss of a loved one, assist a victim of a crime, provide solutions to those in time of need and bridge the gap between the sheriff's offices and the victim advocate programs the prosecutor's office, Miller explained. The team will be trained by the Michigan Sheriff's Association to provide short-term crisis intervention to victims and their families. "Sometimes when you have critical incidents, you have people that are grieving as a result and don't have the direction or assistance they need. In a lot of these cases, we in law enforcement are focused on the incident at hand and are not in a position where we can provide that," Miller said. "These advocates would be able to come out and assist the victims of a crime or a family member and provide some short-term solutions or guidance." Mecosta Osceola ISD behavior specialist Michael Bausano has volunteered to coordinate the program. Bausano has been a volunteer for the Mecosta Osceola Community Crisis Response Team, which provides critical incident debriefings for first responders, educators and other community members following a critical incident. "Sheriff Miller and I met as a function of what we were doing to support our first responders with the critical incident debriefings," Bausano said. "We had some discussions about his plans for the victim's services unit and that led to my taking the initial 20 hour training." 'WE ARE TAKING APPLICATIONS' The program is still in the initial stages, taking applications from volunteers and setting up a roll out plan. "We are taking applications right now," Bausano said. "We will review them in the next month. "Background checks will be done and then we will hold interviews with the applicants we select." The program is looking for a cross section of the community, he said. A professional background or college degree is not required. They will look for people with emotional maturity and the ability to interact with a broad range of individuals. "We want people that have the ability to step into a very difficult situation and be able to remain emotionally stable and can impart empathy and understanding to the victims," Bausano said. "We want individuals to have enough maturity and emotional resolve to be able to be present with someone who is in deep grief and be able to manage the emotions and behaviors that may emerge spontaneously from that. "We are looking for someone who can connect with a person that is grief-stricken and be emotionally present with that person," he continued. "If people have lost a loved one or gone through a traumatic experience of their own, that they have been able to bring that to a resolution and get beyond it." The program will be overseen by the sheriff's offices and the decision to mobilize the Victim's Support unit would come from one of the law enforcement entities. Once deployed, the volunteers would be expected to try to help the victims and their families understand the information they have received, help them determine what they need to do next, act as a liaison between the family and law enforcement and remain with the family until their own support system is in place. "Our job is to be present with the family and offer empathic support," Bausano said. "We will ask if there is anyone we can call, if there are other family members that can lend support. We will be knowledgeable of community resources and make those connections and help the grieving party understand what the steps in the process might be." Bausano said they are looking for twelve volunteers for the program so that two can be "on-call" at any given time. "This program is unique in that the team members are required to be on call," he said. "At least two people will be scheduled to provide immediate response for one week at a time. The way it is set up is that there are always two VSU individuals that go out so that we are never left alone at a scene if the law enforcement officer has to leave. He added that is often likely that the VSU individuals will stay on the scene after the first responder leaves for a few minutes to several hours, as well as doing follow up visits, depending on the needs of the victim. If selected, volunteers will go through a 20 hour initial training that covers subjects such as the role of the advocate, how to calm agitated victims, grief counseling, active listening and observation and PTSD training among others. Each year following the initial training, volunteers are required to attend 12 hours of continuing education. Volunteers are free to leave the program at any time, Bausano said. "One of the things I appreciated at the training I attended was that they made it very clear that we are under no compulsion or obligation to remain part of the team," he said. "It is a choice, and it is the nature of the work that a person really has to believe in and feel that it is a good fit for them. Applications for volunteers are on the sheriff's department website at mecostacounty.org\/government\/sheriff.php. Once completed they can be email to firstname.lastname@example.org or dropped off at the sheriff's department, 225 Stewart Ave., Big Rapids.