An area chaplain program provides critical incident stress management to emergency services personnel while providing comfort and support to individuals affected by a traumatic event, including Georgia Northwestern Technical College (GNTC) students.

Established in 2004, Southern Cross Ministries Inc. has 11 volunteer chaplains and serves the following members: Catoosa County 911/Emergency Communications Agency, Catoosa County Coroner’s Office, Catoosa County Fire Department, Catoosa County Sheriff’s Office, Chickamauga Police Department, Erlanger Life Force Air Medical, Fort Oglethorpe Police Department, GNTC, Puckett EMS, Ringgold Police Department, Rossville Public Safety Department, Walker County Coroner’s Office and Walker County Sheriff’s Office.

“GNTC realized the need for this service,” GNTC Police Chief Chad Cardin said, adding that he is unaware of any other colleges in the Technical College System of Georgia (TCSG) that currently offer a chaplain program.

Cardin said he hopes GNTC will never need to use Southern Cross Ministries’ services, but they will be well worth the investment if they are ever needed.

“If we have a traumatic event involving a GNTC student, our chaplain, Dave Verzyl, is certified to be of service if he needs to,” Cardin said.

Verzyl said he retired after 32 years as a pastor but has served as a chaplain since 2001. He is originally from Flintstone and now lives in Rock Spring in Walker County.

“I became a chaplain with Southern Cross Ministries because I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives,” Verzyl said. Southern Cross Ministries connected him with GNTC.

Verzyl has been fortunate not to have to respond to a traumatic incident associated with GNTC yet, but stands prepared to do so if needed.

“I focus my time on visiting the campuses and establishing a rapport with the campus police officers,” he said. “The chaplain program is one of those assets that is indispensable when someone needs it, and at other times it’s important for me to stay in touch with our partners and to be available in case I am needed.”

The idea for Southern Cross Ministries originated after the City of Fort Oglethorpe developed a chaplain program. Other agencies heard about Fort Oglethorpe’s chaplain program and reached out to Brown about getting their own chaplain services, said Neal Brown, Southern Cross Ministries’ senior chaplain. From there the agency grew into Southern Cross Ministries.

“We act as the go-between to relay information between law enforcement and families,” said Steve Brandon, chaplain to the Ringgold Police Department. “We help families by providing death notifications and grief counseling, which frees up law enforcement and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) folks to focus on their tasks.”

Chaplains are assigned to agencies, but they fill in for each other if the designated chaplain is unable to respond to another agency’s call, Brandon said.

“Sometimes we have only one or two officers working and have a call holding to answer after we complete the current incident response,” said Ringgold Police Chief Jennifer Jones. “We are torn between comforting a family and leaving the family hanging so that we can respond to the next call. That’s when the chaplain can step in and help that family.”

The chaplains stressed that although Southern Cross Ministries is a religious organization and most of the chaplains are in the ministry, they use a professional approach when dealing with grieving loved ones.

The chaplains will pray with families if the families wish to do so, but they do not proselytize or force people to pray with them, Brandon said. The chaplains have responded to calls with people of other faiths.

The agency also debriefs first responders to help them cope with the traumatic situations they encounter. Whether serving the public or a first responder, the go-between is immediate, and then the chaplain stays in touch with the person to make sure a person who did not need assistance immediately but needs it later receives that help, said Clayton Brown, a Southern Cross Ministries board member and son of Neal Brown.

“When we go to a scene, we know that we have the team of chaplains behind us,” said Billy Sims, Walker County coroner. “If a big emergency affects multiple families, we will rely on the team to help.”

“A lot of public safety employees are more likely to confide in someone who is a ‘brother in the field’ and is going to treat the information as privileged,” Cardin said.

All chaplains are certified through the Georgia Association of Law Enforcement Chaplains, which requires 32 hours of training the first year and 20 hours annually thereafter, said Jimmy Spurling, Catoosa County coroner. The organization is also endorsed by the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police.

Volunteer chaplains for Southern Cross Ministries are Steve Brandon, Neal Brown, Kim Brunner, Chris Davidson, Louis Hamm, Jerry Lewis, Keith McLeod, Tim Owens, Anthony Summey, David Verzyl (GNTC’s chaplain) and Brian Williams.

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Georgia Northwestern Technical College provides quality workforce education to the citizens of northwest Georgia. Students have the opportunity to earn an associate degree, diploma or a certificate in aviation, business, health, industrial or public service career paths. This past year, 11,601 people benefited from GNTC’s credit and noncredit programs. GNTC has an annual credit enrollment of 8,071 students and an additional enrollment of 3,530 people through adult education, continuing education, business and industry training and Georgia Quick Start. For more information about GNTC, visit us at GNTC is a unit of the Technical College System of Georgia and an Equal Opportunity Institution.