Dec. 4, 2002 – For volunteers with a local group that helps crime victims, the end of December will mark the end of an era.
In the last 22 years, V.I. Victim Advocates has helped thousands of residents and visitors cope with crises from purse snatchings to homicides, but now the group's leadership says the time has come to bring those efforts to an end.
"Being a volunteer for 22 years gets difficult," director Lynn Falkenthal said. As of Sunday, Victim Advocates stopped taking new cases, she said, and by Dec. 31 the agency will close shop.
As many as 5,000 victims of crime and sudden tragedy a year have been guided through the reporting and recovery processes by Falkenthal and other volunteers since 1980, volunteers who've been on call 24 hours a day, every day. This year's figures are down, she said, but that still translates into 3,000 calls for help.
The not-for-profit group prides itself on the fact that it has functioned all along on private contributions and has never sought V.I. government funding. Several years ago it became a United Way of St. Thomas-St. John agency. But when attempts this year to create a paid staff position fell through, Falkenthal decided to pack it in. Her decision came at a time when six of the eight board members decided they, too, had to step back.
"We're losing very key people that would have been needed to help us revive," board president Judy Grybowski said, counting herself in that number. Those who decided to resign included individuals who found themselves facing the demands of major life transitions — retirement, relocation, death in the family.
Grybowski said many people appealed to Victim Advocates not to disband, including supporters who gave generously in 2002. Their support was enough to create the paid staff position, she said, but there were no indications that enough support would come in to maintain it in the years to come. "We made a major effort since June, big time, and people have been gracious," she said.
The board told supporters first about the decision to close. Grybowsky called it a "bittersweet situation" and expressed special concern for travelers such as those who have turned to Victim Advocates. Once the service stops, she said, there are few prospects for alternative sources of assistance. The Traveller's Aid, an international service group that helps those who find themselves in crisis while abroad, does not exist in the Virgin Islands.
The Human Services Department, through its Intake and Emergency Service Program, does provide travel funds for people who find themselves faced with a crisis and lacking the means to return home. It is one of a handful of government and not-for-profit-profit agencies Falkenthal said could fill the gap created by the loss of Victim Advocates. She also mentioned Family Resource Center, Kidscope and St. John Safety Zone.
Human Services Commissioner Sedonie Halbert said on Wednesday that she was surprised to hear that the volunteer group that has long provided service to crime victims was on the verge of extinction. "They are? I have not received specifics on that," she said.
Halbert said Human Services has a program to compensate victims of crime financially but is very limited in terms of the kind of support services that Victim Advocates is known for. "I'm very sorry to hear about their closing," she said.
To help Human Services compensate for the loss, Halbert said she would meet with the one staff counselor who works with crime victims and with representatives of the not-for-profit agencies that work with crime victims and are subgrantees of the department, to see if they can expand their services.
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