Julie McDonald Commentary: Lewis County Chaplains Comfort During Tragedies


That night nearly four years ago when an impulsive decision shattered the lives of a Toledo family, 911 dispatchers called on the Lewis County Chaplaincy.

My daughter’s friend, 16-year-old Lukah Kimberly Herren, darted across Interstate 5 to reach friends on the other side, but a motorist struck her. Lukah’s frantic friends called her mother to tell her what happened. Terrified, Debbie Herren called 911, asking for confirmation that the unthinkable had happened, that her precious daughter had died.

Dispatchers couldn’t confirm or deny the report over the phone, so they called the Lewis County Chaplaincy, which sent two chaplains to visit the family and confirm the rumors.

Brian Carter, the chaplaincy’s executive director for nearly five years, recalled that sad Jan. 6 evening during a Zoom meeting last month with the Lewis County Republican Club.

Debbie said she remembers little of that tragic night.

“The chaplains came within a couple of hours after Lukah died,” she said. “There were two of them. They were very kind and seemed really concerned about our well-being. We talked about Lukah and prayed a lot. …I really just remember how kind and caring they were. I was very grateful for their visit.”

The Lewis County Chaplaincy Service supports first responders at emergency scenes such as fires, suicides, and traffic accidents. Chaplains assist the Lewis County coroner with death notifications. They provide a confidential comforting sounding board for emergency personnel to decompress after tense situations.

Carter, who works part time for Lewis County Chaplaincy Services and Assured Home Health, Hospice and Home Care, said he’ll never forget June 18, 2017.

It was a Sunday, Fathers’ Day, a time for honoring fathers and their influence in society.

But for Carter, an ordained minister for 20 years, it marked a day when three local men—each of them fathers—killed themselves, and chaplains tried to comfort families devastated by the incomprehensible losses.

“It’s situations like that where people need somebody to be there with them,” he said. “Our first responders do a very good job of coming in and doing their work. They do care about the people that they serve, but they have a responsibility to do their jobs and to get themselves back in service just as quickly as they’re able to.”

That’s when they call on the volunteer chaplains to sit with people during a crisis, contact family members, and call their clergy if applicable.

“We have a great partnership as they are a vital resource to our community,” Lewis County Sheriff Rob Snaza said. “They are there to help others during some of the most difficult times.”

The chaplains often respond to fires and run through questions — Did everyone get out safely? Do you have a place to stay tonight? Did you lose any medication? Were there pets in the house? Then they connect displaced people with the Red Cross and other resources.

At serious accidents, such as fatalities or multi-car collisions, the chaplains often comfort not only the people involved and witnesses but also first responders. They also help notify the family of what happened.

 “We work with the coroner’s office in helping make death notifications,” Carter said. “It’s probably one of the hardest things that we do. I get a knot in my stomach just as I’m approaching residences where I’m supposed to make contact.”

The program has nearly 20 emergency response chaplains and more than 30 volunteers who serve in the Lewis County Jail.

“Any time that you hear of something major taking place in Lewis County, it’s likely that one of our chaplains is involved in some way,” Carter said. He said they’ll serve as gofers, pick up donuts, bring water, or do whatever is needed.

In both 2018 and 2019, he said, the agency answered 120 calls. This year they’ve already answered 90. It is 99.99 percent privately funded through donations with only a small stipend provided for reading glasses and other materials used during jail visits. Only the executive director is paid. The program tries to reimburse the volunteer chaplains for their mileage.

“The greatest thing that anybody can do for us is to pray for us, and pray that we have the right people and all the provision that we need to keep going forward,” Carter said. “We’re always on the lookout for more people to be chaplains.”

Chaplains must be people of faith, regular attenders at a church, and endorsed by the leadership. They are interviewed by the board and must pass background checks. After a year, chaplains are sent for world-class training at the Criminal Justice Training Center in Burien.

The program recently updated its apparel, adopting new heavy-duty jackets that first responders can recognize. He noted that a few years ago they heard a report of an imposter posing as a chaplain.

Donations can be made online at http://lewiscountychaplaincy.org/supporting-lccs/ or by mail to Lewis County Chaplaincy Services, c/o Lewis County Fire District #6, 2123 Jackson Highway, Chehalis, WA 98532.


Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at chaptersoflife1999@gmail.com.