STONINGTON — An expansion of the chaplain program at the police department aims to offer first responders and town residents with an enhanced level of emotional support, and the effort will come at virtually no cost to taxpayers.

Stonington police swore in three new volunteer police chaplains earlier this month, each members of the Westerly-Pawcatuck Clergy Association, as the department seeks to expand the role of local chaplains. Police Capt. Todd Olson said the program is a voluntary one, which greatly limits costs to the department or taxpayers while providing a valuable resource for both the department and community.

"From our perspective, this is another tool for us to assure officers' mental health needs are maintained and to provide every resource we can for residents in need," Olson said.

Under the new program, Olson said three new chaplain who were sworn in on Valentine's Day will assist the agency as on call volunteers. In their capacity of chaplain, he said they would hold a variety of roles including assisting officers in death notifications, counseling officers following difficult responses or assisting families dealing with a crisis.

In addition, Olson said they would also provide assistance at celebrations such as swearing-in ceremonies and annual community outreach programs like the Stuff-A-Cruiser collection drive. They do not have arrest powers and will not serve as officers, he said.

Those sworn in last week were Cal Lord, pastor of Central Baptist Church; Ray Jones, pastor of Lighthouse Baptist Church in Pawcatuck; and Barbara Dakota of Westerly Friends Meeting, who also served as a chaplain-intern at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London. They will join the department's long-standing chaplain, the Rev. Thomas Hoar, who serves as president of St. Edmund's Retreat Center in Mystic.

Olson said the program's expansion, which mimics successful volunteer chaplain programs implemented in regional towns including Norwich and Waterford, came as a result of a growing partnership between the police department and clergy association.

He said the program has been "over a year in the making" and began when members of the association approached him to discuss how they could further assist the agency.

"They had already shown support in hosting the annual blessing of the first responders. This was the next step," Olson said. "It's a concept we've been interested in for a while, so when they showed an interest to volunteer, we were excited to develop the program further."

For Lord, Jones and Dakota, the opportunity to join the department was one too important to pass up. All three said this week that after learning there was a need, they were more than willing to commit their time and energy to serving the community on a greater level.

Lord, who served as president of the clergy association when discussions first began, said the chaplains see the program as a means of expanding their service to the community and gives all three an opportunity to help more than just those within their congregations.

"This is a calling that God has put on my heart," Lord said. "I was sent here with a purpose; I was called to serve the greater community, not just the church."

Jones and Dakota each reiterated his sentiment, saying that the experience so far has been eye-popping, and both added that they are looking forward to getting to know the officers and other first responders in the community.

"It's been a desire of mine to serve the community and emergency responders in a greater capacity since 9-11," Jones said. "I learned of this opportunity in a conversation with the chief and jumped at the opportunity."

For the newest chaplains, it wasn't easy getting to a stage where they could be a sworn volunteer for the agency. They attended two separate training programs in 2018, including a two-day training through the clergy association in January that Jones was able to set up with a chaplain from New Jersey. Olson said all three were also sent to a special week-long course in Mashantucket in September that provided crisis intervention and response technique training. Each also went through extensive interviews and background checks.

Over the coming months, he said the chaplains would spend time with department getting to know the officers and training around a variety of specific scenarios. Each will also receive uniforms including a polo, pullover and pants to make them appear noticeable and professional, no matter the crisis situation.

The program currently operates on an as available basis, but Olson said the agency would like to eventually develop an on-call system so one of the chaplains is always available — and may serve without interruptions to the many other responsibilities in their already busy lives.

"These are all very busy people, but they want to help everyone and anyone they can. This is a way for them to do that," Olson said. "With their assistance, this is something that will quickly grow to serve all first responders in the community. This is a major asset fro the community and we are very lucky to have them working with us."

jvallee@thewesterlysun.com

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