Victim turned advocate serves alongside those who helped her

Briana Kooiman was 19 years old when her father passed away unexpectedly. At the time, she didn’t know what she needed — but victim advocates in Holland did.

They comforted the family and made sure they had eaten dinner.

Ten years later, Kooiman is part of the team helping people navigate the worst moments of their lives.

25 years

This year, Holland’s Victim Services Unit (VSU) is marking its 25th anniversary. The city has produced a video to mark the event.

“As soon as the victim advocates start talking, and they’re able to give examples of their expertise and they’re talking about the resources available to them, you can immediately see the calm come over them,” Holland Department of Public Safety Police Sgt. John Weatherwax says in the video. “They’re with somebody that cares and that’s knowledgeable.”

When the Victim Services Unit is called in, it’s usually because there has been a death or a fire.

What does a victim advocate do, exactly? 

“Whatever needs doing,” says Yvette Mendoza, VSU program coordinator.

Holland’s VSU volunteers comfort families after police are called to a death in the home or firefighters are called to a fire. They offer transportation, connect victims with services such as the Red Cross, even help obtain medications that might have been lost in fires or change diapers. They help officers with death notifications or accompany family members when they identify a loved one’s body.

They help victims understand the processes they will have to go through and identify next steps.

One man had a medical emergency, but his wife couldn’t take care of herself, so VSU volunteers took care of her until her adult children could get there.

Unique unit

More than 50 county sheriff’s departments in Michigan have VSUs. However, Holland is one of only four cities — the others are Lansing, Grand Rapids, and Saginaw — in the state to have one.

“We can’t change what happened, but if there’s anything we can do to make it a little easier, we will,” Mendoza says. “The officers are very compassionate people, but they’re busy. They have other tasks to do.”

Holland’s Victim Services Unit has 14 volunteer victim advocates. For more information about the VSU or to apply to volunteer, visit the VSU website.

Volunteers need to be compassionate and available to drop everything and be at a scene within 15 minutes of getting the call. 

Victim advocates don’t always know what they’ll be seeing, but they know they’re walking into a crisis where they will need to be the voice of calm.

Giving back

After seeing a post requesting volunteers on a job website, it clicked for Kooiman. Soon she found herself across the table from some familiar faces.

“As they interviewed me (for the volunteer position), I put two and two together: ‘These are the same people who helped me!’”

That night in 2012, the victim advocates who helped Kooiman and her five sisters did more than comfort them and make sure they ate. The girls’ mom was in jail at the time. Holland’s VSU contacted the jail and made it possible for them to see their mom that night even though it was after hours.

“I’m glad I’m able to give back. I understand a little of what they’re going through because I’ve been there,” Kooiman says. “My first death call, I was ready, but you’re never fully ready until you go through it, I guess.”

“I feel more connected to the community because of it and able to help out,” Kooiman says. “I love it.”


Read more articles by Andrea Goodell.