Offering a shoulder to cry on during times of crisis.

August 5, 2021

The Oceana County Victim Services Unit includes, left to right, Roy Strait, Coordinator Nancy Schumacher-Strait, Carol Towne, Jenny Schlukebir, Bob Farber and Amanda VenHuizen. Not pictured are Carlos Santana and Jim Johnson.

Offering a shoulder to cry on during times of crisis.

By Allison Scarbrough, Editor.

OCEANA COUNTY — When tragedy strikes, the Oceana County Victim Services Unit swoops in to help.

The dedicated team of volunteers consists of Coordinator Nancy Schumacher-Strait and advocates Amanda VenHuizen, Jenny Schlukebir, Carol Towne, Bob Farber, Roy Strait, Carlos Santana and Jim Johnson.

Farber, who was the Oceana County sheriff at that time, started the program March 3, 2013, and Schumacher-Strait has been the coordinator since its inception.

The group is looking for more volunteers to help carry out its important mission.

“It’s the worst day of their life, and you’re trying to give them some understanding of what’s going on and give them some support,” said Farber.

The advocates offer support to people as they navigate through “one of the darkest days of their life,” said Schlukebir, who works for Community Mental Health.

In addition to Schlukebir’s mental health experience, the other team members offer expertise in key areas. Both Farber and Strait have many years of law enforcement experience, and Farber handles death investigations through the Mid Michigan Medical Examiner Group.

Towne is a firefighter for the Shelby-Benona Fire Department; VenHuizen is a clinical mental health counseling student and the newest member; Schumacher-Strait was an administrative assistant for 30 years at Howmet and served as a sheriff’s reserve officer. Johnson has experience in the funeral home industry and serves as a reserve officer; and Santana has ministry experience and works for Shelby Public Schools. 

Each of them brings not only their skills to a tragic scene, but also their compassion.

“Sometimes I go to a CPR call, and I just stay and become VSU,” said Towne about her dual roles.

“It’s more of listening and answering questions about what some of the process is,” said Farber. “It allows the police department and the fire department to do their job.”

The victim services advocates will step in wherever and whenever they’re needed. 

Schumacher-Strait recalls assisting at a horrific accident involving a semi-truck and two vehicles on US 31 a few years ago. She and another advocate transported one of the little boys involved in the crash to his parents at Mercy Health Hackley Campus in Muskegon. They also transported family to Hackley following a fatal truck/pedestrian crash on Webster Road a few years ago.

Victim services advocates often help with pets that are involved in accidents. “We check on people and talk to animal control,” said Schumacher-Strait. “So many people have their pets with them.”

Schumacher-Strait and husband Roy Strait have even stored 4-wheelers at their house for family members of accident victims at the Silver Lake Sand Dunes.

Following a drowning in Pentwater several years ago, Schumacher-Strait and former volunteer advocate Penny Burillo made dinner for some children who were impacted.

“We do whatever we have to do,” said Schumacher-Strait.

Advocates must complete 20 hours of training and then do 12 hours of training every year. The Oceana County Sheriff’s Office sponsors the training, said Oceana County Sheriff Craig Mast.

“This a group of really good people with big hearts who help people on the worst day of their life,” said Mast.

The group usually meets a few days after they have a call. “Sometimes you need to talk to one another,” said Schumacher-Strait.

When a serious or fatal car crash, suicide or other tragedy occurs, emergency medical services, the fire department or the police will call them to the scene. They are often called out in the middle of the night.

“We’ve had people who were going to come to dinner, and we had to leave.”

There has been a higher amount of suicides lately, said Schumacher-Strait. Those are usually the ones that keep her awake at night. “It becomes hard on you. Sometimes you see things that you wished you hadn’t seen.” 

Despite the sometimes gruesome scenes they often observe, the advocates find the work rewarding.

One of the family members he assisted following a fatal crash always expresses his appreciation to Strait for being there that night. “He’s come up to me three or four times and thanked me for just being there,” he said. “Thank you is the big thing.”

Santana, who is bilingual, offers assistance to Spanish-speaking people. Burillo also offered a helping hand with her bilingual skills.

“Oftentimes you sit there and let them cry and listen to them,” said Schumacher-Strait.

“It is very worthwhile, and we have really good people,” she said. “These ladies and gentlemen are great. We’re just a well-oiled machine. We communicate so well and try to give as much compassion as we can to the family.”

“It’s that person’s worst day, and you’re trying to make it as respectful as you can,” said Farber. “Sometimes when a person loses a loved one, they really don’t know what’s going on. Everybody deals with things differently — some people don’t want to talk, and some people all they want to do is talk.” 

The coordinator often gives the grieving family a follow-up call to see how they’re doing.

“You don’t ever tell anyone, ‘I know how you feel,’ because everybody feels differently,” she said.

Being such a small community, it is not rare that the advocates know the person suffering. “When they see a familiar face, it can be a very positive thing,” said Farber.

“It is an ugly day, and we’re just trying to make it a little more palatable and answer their questions,” he said. “It’s not going to make it go away, but hopefully we can help them get through it in a compassionate way.”

Anyone interested in applying to be an advocate can fill out an application at the Oceana County Sheriff’s Office.

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