Victims No More

Jason Suber, shooting survivor (2nd from left), Wedney Louissaint, Court/Community Advocate (3rd from left), and Melany P. Nelson, Executive Director (4th from left) join with staff members at Cook Wissahickon school.

Northwest Victim Services helps victims become survivors

Crime can strike suddenly, leaving victims and their families feeling traumatized and alone. Providing immediate emotional and psychological support is critical to helping victims cope with their pain and begin to heal. Since the 1980s, Northwest Victim Services (NVS) has been on the front lines of emergency rooms and police departments, connecting victims to the resources that can help them become survivors. We spoke with Melany Nelson, Executive Director of NVS, about challenges, successes, and how even a pandemic could not slow down the NVS team.

How has NVS expanded, particularly with the crime rates in Germantown in recent years?
When the agency began, it was focused solely on assault victims and witnesses. In fact,
Catherine Bachrach founded NVS in 1986 because victims had such a hard time finding support or resources from city or state agencies. As a result of her efforts, NVS became the first community-based agency dedicated to helping victims and witnesses of crime in the City of Philadelphia.

In my time as Executive Director, I’ve tried to expand our scope. Crime is more than just victim or the witnesses. It’s the families of the victims. It’s the community. By looking at it in that way from a higher perspective, if you will, we’ve developed more collaborations with service providers and hospitals, and police districts in order to open up our understanding and treatment of criminal activity and its effects. Because of these collaborations and partnerships, we’re more proactive than reactive.

Would you give us an example of that?
Sure. This is one of my favorite success stories. A grandmother contacted me recently because her 7 year-old grandson had been missing for a week and a half. It wasn’t technically a crime, because there was no police report, no amber alert, but I stepped into action. I contacted Officer Mecca Washington, the Victim Assistance Officer from the 14th Police District to move things forward with law enforcement. We also got about 100 missing person flyers printed and distributed them in the community. By raising the alarm and working with Officer Washington, we were able to reunite the child and his grandmother within 24 hours.

Ten years ago, or even five, we wouldn’t have had the resources or network to get involved so quickly. Back then, the best we could have done is support the victims if a crime had occurred.

Greatest successes?
We currently have a collaboration with Temple University Hospital. Oh, my goodness, that collaboration is like no other.

We work with Scott Charles, Trauma Outreach Manager and his team of Trauma Victim
Advocates. These amazing people are working around the clock seeing the victims and the families who may have just lost a loved one. They are with them moments after that victimization. And then they’re giving that referral to NVS, so we’re able to connect with victims almost in real time.

We also work very closely with the 5th, 14th, 35th and 39th police districts and they’re awesome. The captains, the Victim Assistance officers, the inspectors — all of them. We get crime reports within a day which gives us a great deal of information. Because of these collaborations, NVS is able to more quickly support crime victims.

I was honored to receive the Mt. Airy Community Champions Award in April 2018. Although I was named, it couldn’t have happened without the support of my wonderful staff — Alfreda Strand (Victim Advocate), Kwaminah Greer (Victim Advocate), Wedney Louissaint (Court & Community Advocate), Shameekah Smith (Project Outreach Advocate), & Gail Mitchell (Office Manager) — and many dedicated volunteers.

I was also asked to host a show on LaSalle University’s TV Broadcast. The name of the show is “The Power of One” which airs on Youtube, Comcast channel 56 and Verizon channel 36. The show is a way for individuals to share powerful messages or experiences that can touch the lives of others in so many ways. We’ve had interviews with crime survivors as well as public figures like District Attorney Larry Krasner, State Reps Stephen Kinsey, Art Haywood, and Isabella Fitzgerald.

Have you had victims remain with NVS?
Oh my, yes. They are powerful voices for us. Shameeka Smith lost her 16-year-old son to gun violence and it was all caught on tape. I was her advocate during that tragedy and she wanted to give something back to the community. So, she started volunteering. But it just so happens that I had a part time position at the time and I hired her. She’s now my Project Outreach Advocate.

I also work with Jason Suber, who was shot 16 times. Before COVID, he used to go to
Philadelphia schools with me and speak to young people about victimization and bullying. Those kids were in awe of someone who had lived through that kind of attack.

One of my board members, Chris Penn, was a victim of a crime. I try to select victims and people who are affected by crime, because their voices carry a lot of weight and their
stories can help so many others.

How did you get involved?
My mother Patricia A. Payne, started volunteering at NVS in the 80’s. She was a courtroom volunteer, chaired the volunteer advisory board, became part of the NVS board and later became the Board President. Her last position was serving as the Executive Director.

While my mother was the Executive Director I would volunteer for community/fundraising events. After graduating high school, I would volunteer for preliminary hearings when they were held at the local police districts. I served as the Interim Administrative Assistance in the 90’s. When my mother retired in 2012, I served on the Board of Directors and was appointed the Board President in 2013. I became the Executive Director in 2014.

How has COVID affected your work?
When it first hit, we relied on technology very heavily in the beginning (March, April and May). Me and my advocates were still contacting victims every day. But we were asking them ‘are you an Android or an iPhone person?’ If they didn’t have a way to print forms, we’d get them to download a free app so they could scan the documents I’d drop off to them. I’d ask them to fill out the forms, scan them, and email or text them back to me.

That’s one of the ways we kept serving our people, especially those at Temple University. The Temple Trauma Advocates continued seeing those victims in the hospital and we are able to keep collaborating with them.

When we were aware that wearing a mask was good protection, we were right back out doing home visits, with a major change. We began meeting them outside. I’d ask them if they have a porch or another place outside to meet. It makes a big difference when victims can actually see me face to face and know that I care. I’m not doing this because it’s a job. It’s a passion that I have. So, with COVID — no setbacks, no excuses. We didn’t miss a beat, we just found new and creative ways to serve our people.

Another way we offer support is through distance healing. We can use the telephone for therapy sessions, which keeps us in touch with victims and up to date on their needs.

Any other big challenges?
Successful fundraisers and obtaining grant money are always two challenges. NVS is a small non-profit that serves over 2,000 victims, witnesses, family members, and community members a year at NO charge. Fundraisers, grants and donations are extremely important in order to meet our annual agency budget.

We see you regularly post profiles of your volunteers on your website. Is there a volunteer you’d like to recognize for this month?
Isolene Nelson has been a court volunteer for Northwest Victim Services for over 10 years. She has dedicated her time to serving victims and for that we are truly grateful.

Melany Nelson, Executive Director of Northwest Victim Services (left) at a panel discussion on victim support services in 2018. She’s joined by Tinesha Banks, President of Tabor (middle); and Chantay Love, Program Director of Every Murder Is Real. Photo Courtesy: The Philadelphia Tribune

How can neighbors help NVS?
We love volunteers. Even a few hours can make a big difference. The best way to find out about our volunteer positions and what they entail is to call me on my cell (267-808-0350). We also list all of our volunteer positions on our website, Another way is through donations. Visit our website for more info.

What’s the most important thing working at NVS has taught you?
Working at NVS is not a job for me this is my passion! I LOVE serving others and I will do whatever I can to help those in need.

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