CARING AMID CRIME: Volunteers help victims cope after chaos

Published: Aug. 23, 2017 at 6:45 PM MST|Updated: Aug. 24, 2017 at 2:46 PM MST
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Suzy Burros (left) and Jamie Leon-Guerrero reminisce about the feelings they shared together....
Suzy Burros (left) and Jamie Leon-Guerrero reminisce about the feelings they shared together. (Source: Tucson News Now)

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Suzy Burros is a mother and a wife. For 365 days a year, she is the caring shoulder to lean on for her family.

But at a moment's notice she becomes a superhero, with strong enough shoulders for countless helpless victims.

"Eight years, going on nine," Burros said, talking about how long she's been volunteering.

Burros' headquarters is the Pima County Attorney's Office, on the 14th floor, where she and more than a hundred others put on their figurative capes.

"They're them. They're ordinary people who live ordinary lives,"  Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall said. "They come from all walks of life. But these are people who have a really deep passion and commitment for making a difference in their community."

They are the Victim Services Division volunteer advocates.

Often they are at heinous crime scenes, going unnoticed among the officers and detectives.

They are unassuming men and women who walk right up to victims and their families when they are at their most vulnerable.

"I just think it's a connection," Burros said. "Once you start talking to people, they become more receptive. Your tone of voice has a lot to do with it. The way you approach them."

For eight years, Burros has taken on the unenviable task as a volunteer. She uses her training on trauma, and listening techniques, even in uncontrollable danger.

On Jan. 8, 2011, Burros said she was the first Victim Services Division volunteer on scene at Tucson's most notorious crime scene.

"I actually happened upon it," Burros said. "I just happened to be there. But that was my Safeway. That's where I go, you know. It's my neighborhood."

Six people were killed in the mass shooting at the Safeway shopping center on Ina and Oracle roads. 13 more people were injured in the planned attack on congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, including Giffords.

"That was the most overwhelmed that we've ever been locally," LaWall said.

"I guess it was a few months after the shooting, I remember seeing Barbara. She said, 'If you hadn't been there they might not have called us. Just because there was so much chaos going on,'" Burros said.

Burros contacted the Victim Services Division headquarters, and fellow volunteers and staff were deployed to help victims and their families.

(Source: Tucson News Now)

"The Pima County Attorney's Victim Services Division, established in 1975, was the first in the nation to provide comprehensive assistance to victims of crimes. It has served as a model for programs in other states and in several foreign countries," the Victim Services Division website states.

According to Laura Penny, Director of the Victim Services Division, there are 35 paid employees on the staff, including 27 who are paid full-time advocates. But there are also more than 100 volunteers in the field and 15 court volunteers.

These individuals are directly called to the scene of a crime by law enforcement. They provide everything from crisis intervention at the crime scene to the criminal justice process.

"It may be a homicide, it could be a serious sexual assault, or a domestic violence," LaWall said. "It could be a wide variety of different kinds of crimes. We do training on trauma, and training on listening techniques, and training about how to respond when you have a domestic violence victim, or a sexual assault victim. We do the kinds of things that teach them that there are different kinds of responses for different kinds of crime victims."

Victim Services volunteers will even accompany victims or their family members to court and meetings with attorneys.

But they are not authorized to provide legal advice, LaWall said.

"They're certainly allowed to explain what the process is: 'After the initial appearance, there will be an arraignment. This is what happens at an arraignment.' That's not giving them legal advice. If they have legal questions, then the victim advocate knows what they're supposed to do is to bring that to the prosecutor," she said.

According to Penny, much of the funding for the Victim Services Division comes from fines and fees paid by criminals, administered at the state and federal level.

"We save Pima County hundreds of thousands of dollars a year by utilizing volunteers. We have to rely on volunteers," Penny said.

Kris Chambers died June 18, 2014 after being hit by a car while riding her bike. (Source: Tucson News Now)

It's not just the infamous, large-scale crimes that catch the volunteers' attention.

More often than not, they are called out to the scene by law enforcement to help people like Jamie Leon-Guerrero.

"It was a big life event, you know," Leon-Guerrero said. "Three years ago, my partner, Kris Chambers, was killed by an impaired driver who was on spice - while riding her bicycle."

It's these crimes that Burros remembers the most. By her estimate, she has been called out to roughly 275 incidents during her eight years.

"I knew what had happened," Burros said. "I knew there was a death involved, by how distraught she was."

And those are the ones that often stick with her, where she is called out to help the one victim, like Jamie.

"I describe it, when I speak, like a baby taking their first step," Leon-Guerrero said, fighting through tears. "I had fallen, and I didn't know what I was supposed to do. I don't think that without their support, even in that small time-frame, just kind of nudging me to get up and saying, 'You've kind of got to go forward now without Kris,' I don't know if I would've been able to do that."

The Victim Services Division became Leon-Guerrero's second family. They were there, at the trial, and through to the sentencing of Chambers' killer.

"Because that's another trauma," LaWall said about the stressful process of the trial. "You're the victim of a crime and suddenly now you have to be re-victimized."

Leon-Guerrero and Burros were reunited the day we interviewed the pair, and they reminisced about the feelings they shared together.

"I don't know what I would've done that morning if they weren't there," Leon-Guerrero said. "I didn't remember their names, or their faces, or the words that they said to me that day. But I remember I had my family and my friends around me. But these were these two strangers in Kris' house with me. They held my hand, and they gave me a hug, and gave me water. Just that feeling of genuine concern, I remember that so clearly."

Suzy Burros (left) and Jamie Leon-Guerrero. (Source: Tucson News Now)

Burros has eight years of emotional moments from which she has to disconnect, at the end of the day, when she heads home.

"I've seen a lot," Burros said.

The goal is to not take home each murder, sexual assault or robbery.

Her son, Jon Burros, said, "Sometimes when it's a really bad incident, you can see it on her face. But she's strong enough to get through it."

When she walks through her front door and takes off that super-volunteer cape, she is back to being mom.

"You want to take care of them, but you can't. You want to take them home with you, but you can't," Suzy Burros said on those she's helped. "But there are so many people out there that are alone and need help. If this is one of the services that they can provide, or have given to them for free, then I think this is one of the best programs out there."

Suzy Burros at home with her family. (Source: Tucson News Now)

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