Catholic San Francisco


(Photo by George Raine/Catholic San Francisco)

Deacon Christoph Sandoval heads S.F. Crisis Care, a non-profit providing personal support to survivors in the aftermath of homicides, fatal accidents and other sudden causes of death and trauma.

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Cathedral deacon seeks volunteers to console witnesses, survivors after a loss
December 8th, 2010
By George Raine

Each week in San Francisco, 25 or more people die from suicide, homicides, accidents or other sudden causes, leaving survivors so traumatized they are thrust into a kind of desperate, altered state.

They need immediate help, particularly consolation that police and other first responders often can’t provide – they have other work to do – amid crisis.

In fact, there are cadres of volunteers in major West Coast cities providing just that service – on-scene personal support. The newest chapter, S.F. Crisis Care, is now forming in San Francisco, directed by Christoph Sandoval, a deacon for the past six years at Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption and a veteran health care executive and counselor of people with terminal illnesses.

Sandoval’s new role is nonsectarian. There won’t be any proselytizing of survivors in critical junctures of their lives. But the skill set Sandoval will be utilizing is the same he exercised when he began his career as a volunteer at Shanti Project in San Francisco, the first agency in the nation providing direct service to people with AIDS/HIV, then as director of clinics for the Santa Clara County Health Department and as director of the Multicultural AIDS Resource Center of California and doing other non-profit and for-profit work.

Sandoval is already providing Crisis Care-like service at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption: He is a spiritual support group facilitator, assisting people newly diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses and for family, friends and caregivers.

“There is a psychic wound to the soul that happens at the moment of a tragic loss,” said Sandoval, a 62-year-old San Franciscan. “It creates a moment in which all belief systems and assumptions about life collapse, and I see an opportunity through the breakdown – and opportunity for a breakthrough to answer some of the essential questions about the life experience.”

As the chapter prepares to launch in San Francisco, Sandoval is developing relationships with police, fire and other agencies with the aim of building trust so that the public safety sector will notify Crisis Care when their services would be useful, 24 hours a day. Crisis Care Los Angeles, for example, has 150 volunteers responding to more than 500 incidents a year, as the service they provide is tried, tested and valued.

When the system is up and running in San Francisco, officers or firefighters on the scene of a trauma, once it is secured, will request a Crisis Care volunteer via a dispatcher. Sandoval thinks he or she could be on scene within 20 minutes.

Sacramento-based U.S. Crisis Care is a non-profit that has developed chapters on the West Coast somewhat modeled after the first, in San Diego County, formed in 1988. Volunteers are trained to deliver compassionate consolation, beginning as soon as possible following a trauma, as a kind of bridge to service providers who can assist survivors more long-term.

In the face of a tragedy, survivors can become suicidal, depressed and lack coping mechanisms, said Sandoval. “What we need to do is bridge from the moment of the trauma and hand them into another safety net. That is what is missing here,” he said.

“Do we want to duplicate all the services available in the city? No. What we want to do is provide the critical services of bridging,” he said.

In other cities in which U.S. Crisis Care operates – including San Diego, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Portland and Seattle – municipalities provide the majority of Crisis Care budgets, said David Vincent, director of the non-profit. San Francisco, although supported by a Board of Supervisors resolution and the encouragement of Police Chief George Gascon, Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White and others, has been unable to contribute because of its own budget crisis, said Vincent. Meanwhile, private donations have helped incubate the program, now seeking the up to 60 or 70 volunteers necessary to launch services. Information is available at

Even with the chapter in its nascent state, Sandoval has already been pressed into service: A California Highway Patrol officer called him on Nov. 11 requesting he comfort a young woman who had run from her father’s car when he stopped it on the Bay Bridge and threatened to jump or blow up the SUV. On Nov. 17, Sandoval consoled the witnesses of an auto-pedestrian fatal accident at Geary and Leavenworth streets.

“I am wired to do this,” said Sandoval.

A number of prospective Crisis Care volunteers have come forward. Those who pass initial screening will have 48 hours of training in multi-disciplinary emergency compassionate consolation techniques – but the most successful among them will have what Sandoval calls “the tools of the intellect and the tools of the heart and the tools of the spirit” to provide “humanitarian support on the streets.”

Of volunteers, he said, “They really have to have the capacity to learn, to be an on-going student. A person has to be open-minded, have the ability to step up and be compassionate. Through the training process we let them know what to do – and, sometimes, not to say anything.”

Sandoval said his search for volunteers will take him to San Francisco’s Catholic parishes. While he will emphasize that Crisis Care is a nonsectarian non-profit, he senses a “groundswell of support in the Archdiocese. “We’re preserving hope in the darkest moments in a person’s life,” he said.

From December 10, 2010 issue of Catholic San Francisco.



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