Volume XVI | Issue 1 | Spring 2016
Kelly Wright works in the Douglas County District Attorney’s office as the victim services director. She served as the main contact to more than 100 people affected by the shooting at UCC. Photo: John Waller

An advocate for the victims

Kelly Wright matches needs with resources

Kelly Wright, victim services director at the Douglas County District Attorney’s office, normally assists victims of felony crimes with the judicial process. She provides them with referrals and resources, attends hearings and helps them prepare for trial. 

But when she was called to the Umpqua Community College campus after the shooting, her regular job description evaporated. 

 “Within 15 minutes I was on campus,” Wright said. “I lived at the police station for the first week, and for the next four months, I was pretty much out of commission with my regular job.”

In the hours after the shootings, Wright became the main contact for the families of the nine deceased, a number that quickly grew to include families of injured survivors and witnesses. She made difficult decisions about how to share highly confidential personal information about the victims, comforted families and survivors and, that evening, she was the one telling the families that their loved ones were dead. 

During the coming months, she was in every victim’s home at least six times and had repeated contacts with other affected people, helping them fill out victim compensation forms and connect with needed resources. 

Funds for crime victims

One of the main resources Wright helped victims access is the Oregon Crime Victim’s Compensation Fund. In addition to psychological and physical trauma, victims and their families often incur medical and counseling costs, funeral expenses and loss of income. The fund helps victims cover these costs.

When Wright left her office on Oct. 1, she didn’t know she would be gone for months. The District Attorney’s office could have asked the governor for an emergency administrator and the federal government for an interim position, but in the end the office handled it internally.

Wright credited a supportive team at her office for making it all work. “I had amazing support from the get-go,” she said. “It really helps to have an office manager who can take over anybody’s job.”

Douglas County District Attorney Rick Wesenberg played a community leadership role and supported her as she responded to victims’ needs.

One of the first issues Wright tackled was how to put victims in touch with the community groups that wanted to help them. She had to have them sign releases, so she could share their information with the agencies that would be a financial or food resource.

“I was very wary about sharing information and stalled a long time,” she said.

Ideally, Wright said, she would have had a plan that specified a procedure for obtaining release forms and disseminating information in the first 72 hours.  

Most of Wright’s work revolved around meeting with a long list of victims, getting to know their needs, and matching them with financial and other resources. The sheer volume of contact was daunting. Eventually, she would have direct contact with more than 100 people, many of them more than once.

She found a partner when she began working with Bryan Trenkle, Greater Douglas United Way’s executive director, a few days after the incident. Together, they visited families and distributed assistance funds. 

“Bryan and I worked together beautifully,” she said. It was important to have a trusted partner when meeting the families, so the responsibilities could be shared. “If either of us needed a break, we knew we had backup.”

Compassion fatigue

Wright normally helps victims while operating with clear personal boundaries that protect open investigations and prosecution efforts. “The boundary line got fuzzy,” she said. Since the shooter was dead and there would be no trial, Wright didn’t have to keep her distance from victims’ families.

That closeness and intensity, in addition to the duration of the UCC incident, inevitably contributed to what Wright described as compassion fatigue, a hazard of her profession. “You get so burned out that you start to prioritize people’s level of trauma,” she said. “It was hard hearing other people’s needs when it felt like the only priorities were those from the shooting.”  

Wright’s solution was to go to an out-of-town training in January, which allowed her to shift her perspective. “I went to Eugene every day, and it was very helpful in getting re-inspired. I realized: I am good at this; I’m not burned out; I’m just very tired.

“It was a perfect way to transition, and I came into my office for the first time after that.”  

Victims advocacy: Lessons Learned

During the hours following the UCC incident, Kelly Wright discovered the importance of simple things. 

Keep business cards current. Wright, who had gotten married in August, didn’t have her new name or her correct contact number on the cards. “I couldn’t pass out cards during the entire incident,” she said.

Take care of yourself. “I didn’t eat for days — I’m not kidding,” she said. “The day it happened, at the reunification center, we were so busy dealing with the victims’ families I couldn’t eat. I felt awful.”

Prepare a Go Kit. If she has to leave in a hurry again, Wright has prepared a kit with updated business cards, emergency forms for victim relief, an electronic tablet so people can apply electronically or online, release forms, pens, emergency pamphlets, and energy bars.  

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