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It Starts Here Podcast | Ep. 6: Chaplain Mindi Russell

It Starts Here Podcast Ep. 6 | Law Enforcement Chaplain Mindi RussellMH: Hello, I'm Mike Hackard. I'm the chair of Hackard Law, a law firm focusing on estate, trust, and elder financial abuse litigation in California's major urban areas. This is Hackard Law's podcast, It Starts Here. This is an August 2017 podcast featuring Chaplain Mindi Russell, the executive director of the Law Enforcement Chaplaincy of Sacramento. We are going to discuss how Chaplain Mindi has made a difference in people's lives both here in Northern California and in the country. I appreciate Mindi's presence here today. Mindi, thank you.

MR: Thank you for having me.

MH: So, it is a delight as I've said before and Mindi has heard this, to get to know her and get to know the great work that she has done, both here as well as I know around the country. Some of the listeners are gonna know; in fact, many of them are gonna know about you. But I want them to hear more, so let's start. Where were you born?

MR: Well a lot of people don't know I was born in Annapolis, Maryland. And so I had my children there, I got married there, I went to school there. And then when I came out here to visit my dad for just a brief time, we fell in love with Sacramento, California. So my husband, my family, and my sister and her family, and mom all came out to Sacramento.

MH: So, I hear you sing the praises of Sacramento, but I've heard that you've sung elsewhere, what did you do?

MR: Well, this is so funny because I was a singing gospel evangelist on the East Coast, up and down the East Coast and that really actually why we came out to Sacramento so that I could sing at my dad's church. I just thought that "Wow, coming out on the West Coast, I would really be in demand". But I stopped singing for five years.

MH: You did?

MR: Yeah.

MH: Well what did you do for those 5 years?

MR: My husband and I were really entrepreneurs, so we did a couple of other things different than what God called us to do... and that was we actually started some cafes, one was called "What's Cooking" and the other one was "Lunch Connection". And we actually went around and took food to offices, corporations during the lunch hour.

MH: Wow, that's great. After you did that, tell me, what did you do?

MR: Well, the thing that had always been a passion for me is to help people. And when we were first married we were in Germany, and my husband was in the service and I worked for American Red Cross in the Munich Olympics.

MH: Wow.

MR: 1972, and for that one day that they shut down the Munich Olympics, I was gifted and charged with 2 athletes that I got to take care of and to really help calm their nerves because they were American and Jewish, and that was what the massacre was all about.

MH: That's interesting. My recollection, I do remember that that was '72.

MR: Yes.

MH: And so who were those two athletes, was one Mark Spitz?

MR: No I wish it was Mark Spitz, but it wasn't. It was just two athletes that honestly all these years later I don't even remember a thing. One was named Pattie and there was a young boy named, I think, David.

MH: Being there, and I've been to the side of that, I wasn't there in '72, but did you know what was going on? Was it clear what was going on?

MR: Yes, because we lived on the base where all the athletes, all the Americans were brought to protect because really this has never happened before. So, they really didn't know what to do, so they took care of the athletes just to kind of everybody settling down. And then the other part of it was the bad guys were put in the prison on Base 2. So, you can see the apprehension, and my job was to do exactly what I do today. Is to take of people when they are in chaos and keep them calm, while they are trying to process this tragedy.

MH: Did it work?

MR: It did work, but we got better.

MH: You got better with time?

MR: Yes.

MH: Yeah, they say that you canget better with experience.

MR: Well, you know nobody, up until Ground Zero nobody had classes about how to help people in trauma or not the right ones. There wasn't really a lot of training in crisis, and even our first responders were not treated really well when they were exposed to trauma. So, I was always searching to find how we can help people better in their worst times.

MH: Okay. Since you mentioned Ground Zero, so 9/11 you were probably watching a TV somewhere. Okay, tell me what happened.

MR: Well, I was here in Sacramento; I was in charge of being the month of September to respond to any kind of national disaster. And so all up until that time I had trained, trained, trained for quote "the big one," but this was the big one, and just like everybody else, we were all in shock. I got the first phone call at 6 in the morning from Washington, D.C. They said: "Get on a plane and get out to New York." And actually, they were flipping the coin for all the responders to decide whether they were gonna go to New York or the Pentagon. And then the second plane hit, and that's when they called me back and said: "You are allowed 4 hours to respond to any call." But my go back is packed, right? And they said, "go to the airport right now, we'll give you further instructions there". But during that time, President Bush shut down all air flight, and so I called back Washington, D.C. to say, "How do I get out there the planes are down on the ground?" And they said, "We don't care just get out here." So then it had to be for me to try and find a way to get out to New York City and I got a call from Travis Air force Base and said, "We've got a seat for you if you want to fly to New York." So I get down to the Travis Air force Base and I was with the SART Team, and that was 32 officers, soldiers and people ready to go to New York City. And we were the only airplane in the sky with fighters on either side.

MH: Wow, now tell us what the SART Team is and I'm gonna also stop for a second; I wanna quit saying, "Wow," by the way. Some of this stuff is wow and I...

MR: Wow.

MH: I gotta quit saying it, I will try to stop. So what is the SART team?

MR: Okay that's the Search and Rescue Team. And that was really trained from the group that went to Oklahoma City. So even though I worked at Oklahoma City for the people that came back from Oklahoma City, I knew all the guys that were going out. So, this was a really good fit for me to go and get on that plane and get out to New York.

MH: So you were on the military aircraft; where did you land, at JFK or...?

MR: Actually we landed in New Jersey, and we were there for six hours when New York was saying, "We don't need anybody's help." So everybody was kinda at a stand down, and I proceeded to call Washington, D.C. again, and they said, "Rent a car and get out here, you are not held with the same things that the SART team was, the regulations. So get out here." So, we rented a car, and honestly, I'd never been to New York City before, but we just followed the big smoke in the sky and never had to ask for directions. We were the only vehicle on the Brooklyn Bridge; we were the only car in New York City driving around given permission from the National Guard and police officers to get on the scene.

MH: And how did any people along that road know that you had permission?

MR: Because we had seven ID's around our necks, certification for any type of major disaster is absolutely essential. So I had one from Washington, D.C. American Red Cross, for ICISF, which is the International Critical Incidents Stress Foundation, a trauma association. So I had all these regular ID's that got us to the next step.

MH: That's impressive. And so as you approached the building or what were the buildings, you must have been stopped, and where did you go from there?

MR: So, our instructions were to get to this one location, and then we were going to be given more instructions. And that's what really happens in disasters. We are organizing the chaos, and a lot of times even though we have trained and trained, when the situation happens you gotta be very fluid because things change. They changed the Family Assistance Centre three different times because it was overflowing people and that'ss where we ended up at Pier 62. So we go to this one location, and we were instructed just to go to Ground Zero and see how we can help. So Ground Zero was right where the Twin Towers imploded, but there were hundreds of buildings that were demolished or broken windows. It took us 8 days just to get to the "warm zone", not the "hot zone", but the "warm zone" where we think people were shut down in their own apartments and they couldn't get out. So, once we got there we get to Ground Zero it was the first day, it was a beautiful day, but everything was gray because when people were walking it was a lot of the ash. And so when we would get there we would just walk up to people or they would walk up to us, and everybody was so gracious and so thankful that we have flown 3,000 miles to come to New York City to help them any way we could.

MH: And you must have had a uniform on that they could identify...

MR: Oh, "chaplain."

MH: Yeah, the chaplain.

MR: It just says "chaplain," and even though we didn't wear a regular uniform the word "chaplain" had people drawn to us all the time because there was no political correctness at this point. People needed some security, some stability, and some spirituality. They needed to know they were gonna be all right. From the officers that I walked the beat with at night time to the first responders out on the scenes, to the families looking for their family members. They all so needed something solid, an anchor.

MH: So many people being grief-stricken, and you being around them and trying to assist them, that must have been overwhelming for you as well.

MR: So when I first got there and I saw how big it was, I know I said a prayer or something so simple like, "God, just empty me of me, and fill me with you because I don't know what to do." And I didn't, it was overwhelming, there were 5,000 people in the Family Assistance Center that I was in charge of and to qualify people to help them, and officers that were hearing story after story, that would literally go behind the curtain and just sob. It was overwhelming, that's a great word. But I remember at one point I just felt so good to know I only need to help one person at a time, and that's what I ended up doing. Just when I was assigned one person, that person I stayed with until I get to the next person. And what I mean by that is, as I was helping that person or finding what their needs were to get them their next resource; so I always got a first-hand on to get them where they needed to go. So the overwhelming stopped, and the autopilot jumped in, and I did what I had been trained for all my life. And I knew I was helping people one person at a time.

MH: Yeah, terrific. So, after that, did you ever have a meltdown?

MR: Well, I must admit I still won't watch the shows every year. Several of my partners have died, and I still hear from some of the officers and some of the families that when I came back from California, I looked them up because of the airplane crash. I was in charge of going to do a retrieve for American and United Airlines. Because they were really our first heroes. And so I got to meet them, and I have stayed in touch with several of them over the years. And we are talking 16 years now and it's just as fresh. I've gone back to New York City five times, and I put on anniversary ceremonies here in Sacramento where the governor gets involved. But meltdown completely, not really, but there is definitely a grief wave that hits my heart about the end of August until September 11 passes.

MH: And I know that from all that, it even impacted your health. So you have described a little bit, but describe what you and others that were close to Ground Zero, what you faced?

MR: So there is a scripture that goes, "Yea, though I walk through the valley at the shadow of death," that came alive that day. As we were walking, it became such sacred ground because we were walking on ash, and we knew that that was the buildings and that was where the people inside those buildings, our first responders and their families. So it became very surreal, and for all of us going there, we went to help, and we really didn't have the right kind of air masks, hard hats, gloves, the things that should've had. So many of us have encountered respiratory problems because of that. But I had some someone ask me over a couple of years ago, because I have COPD, and I've never smoked a day in my life. But the doctors said, "You breathed in all those toxins, the gasses, the fumes and all." Somebody said, "Well, was it worth it because your health is so bad?" And I said, "I would do it again in a heartbeat, and that's why I continue to do what I do because I really believe that, you know what, I'm in the right place. I share with once that Mark Twain said there is two significant events in everybody's life, the day you were born and the day you know why you were born. I know why I was born; I know that Ground Zero was just one of my milestones. But when I come back and I hear I have been able to help a family or a person, that's their ground zero, right? Yeah. And so I know that that's what I'm supposed to do.

MH: Wow, you can cover so much ground, you really should write a book. I mean if she doesn't write a book, she's harming all of us. But so let's get back to today, so it's 2017, and like you said, a lot of people have their own ground zero, and you help in that. But describe for me, so take us through one of your work weeks, who you are and who you manage, what kind of things go on. So could you do that?

MR: Okay, so the Law Reinforcement Chaplaincy is made up of about a 150 volunteers. There is only two career chaplains, and we oversee this program that oversees the whole County of Sacramento. We work with the City, the County, the State and the Federal Law Enforcement Agencies. And we respond to law enforcement families' professional and personal crisis, and community members and school districts when they have a crisis. We are trained in trauma, so although my name Chaplain Mindi Russell, that "chaplain" means nothing more than the confidentiality that a chaplain can have with a person. And I think that's a lot of credibility that comes with term. But our training in trauma makes us professionals in the area of trauma response and care. And when we go out, we are called to everything you read about, and things you don't read about, from suicides, homicides, baby deaths, fatal accidents, all of these things that are such extremes that most people don't really wanna hear about. That's what we are in the midst of every day.

MH: And I want to take us through that a little bit in thatwithout violating any confidence because you have just like with me in the field that I do, I have seen so many things that I can describe them generically. But describe for us generically even a fatal accident. Who calls you, and what do you do?

MR: So, what happens is that our law enforcement immediately gets on the phone and calls us. So I kind of joke with them and say "When people are in need they call 911, they get an officer, but when officers call 911, they get the chaplain." And when we arrive, ideally what ends up happening is we have two types of chaplains; there are chaplains that are trained to work with officers, and there are chaplains that are trained to work with the community. So it's a great marriage of two different missions under one banner. So we send out the chaplains to make sure the officers are okay while they are doing their job. But they pretty much always can handle it, unless they are the victim themselves. If the fatal accidents happens to have their family member in it, then they are no different than any other victim. But then the community chaplains arrive and they are there to help the families, they go to the hospitals, they go to the families' homes, they will sit with the families to be able to provide information as the family is able to process. So the care that we give them on scene, really points to the hope that God will give them later. But they are in that shock and the surreal of this situation, and every victim, every victim has said this; "I never thought this would happen to me." So, we've gotta get them beyond that shock that it did indeed happen to you. But you are gonna be able to live through it, grow through it and be better after it. If you will let us help you.

MH: I know those there times that you said you just need to be there, just the power of presence, maybe even if nothing is said.

MR: Right.

MH: But describe that a little bit.

MR: So we used to use the terminology "the ministry of presence" which is nothing more than "Let us be there." And I've heard officers say this over and over again, "When we see you show up, you chaplains, our stress level drops." And I pursued that once and said: "Why is that?" And the fact is they've got a job to do and they don't a lot of time to work with the emotions of the victims. They got a crime to solve, they got a situation to work through and they feel very bad that they can't sit with that family through that most emotional time. But when they call their chaplains, then we are representing them, so it's kinda like a hand in glove kind of situation where we are really representing that department and that officer, being there with that family. And they have that trust and confidence that we are going to represent them well. So, being there is just one part of it, and then having a purpose, doing something while we are there. Now I'm gonna tell you you're right, we do a lot of listening. We hear as the person is processing their pain, where they're at, and if they're in good grief or bad grief, healthy or unhealthy. And if they are gonna get through this. We want people to get better, not bitter. We want to help people be able to know that this kind of new normal is livable.

MH: That's gotta be incredibly tough.

MR: Hmm-mm.

MH: And so for you, Chaplain Mindi, during one week, let's say last few weeks, I know you have a lot of people to supervise and manage, but did you go out to a number of scenes yourself?

MR: Luckily because we have so many, I don't have to go to every one of them. I generally tend to go out to the high profile or where an officer becomes the victim like in a shooting or he has been hurt, she has been hurt. I have been out to several of them but I'm also out there to make sure my chaplains are okay. I'm a real firm believer in self-care, I think self-care is ethical. I believe that if you are not taking care of yourself, how can you really take care of another person? So, sometimes I just show up to say, "Are you okay?" And then when the chaplains, they reply back, "We got this," I don't have to stay. So it's having not only duplicates, but multiples of what we've done and how to train, and every one of them doing it the same consistent way.

MH: We could go on for a long time. I know that there is so much for her to talk about, including training people from around the country and setting up national protocols. But I'm not gonna ... I'll ask you to come back one day.

MR: I'll come back.

MH: So, I've loved this, and thank you. Now I appreciate it very much chaplain Mindi. So I have warned her that I'm going to do a little plug for a book that I recently wrote, and it's called The Wolf at the Door: Undue Influence and Elder Financial Abuse. For anyone that would like a digital copy of the book, just email me at hackard@hackardlaw.com, and I'll send you one. Thank very much.

MR: Thank you as well.

It Starts Here Podcast | Ep. 6: Chaplain Mindi Russell from Hackard Law on Vimeo.

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