Volunteer advocates comfort victims at darkest moments
During the week, David Moss is a marketing representative at a major insurance company; Soneska Rivera works in accounting.
But for a couple of weekends each month, they are the first source of comfort for people who have undergone a traumatic event.
Moss and Rivera volunteer their time as victim advocates at the Seminole County Sheriff ’s Office, responding to suicides, homicides and overdoses.
The calls range widely, from elderly people who died naturally to children and toddlers who did not.
“My pay is knowing I made a difference in someone’s life,” Rivera said.
Rivera, 44, and Moss, 41, each became an advocate after learning about the program during a citizen’s law enforcement academy session about four years ago.
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After expressing an interest, they had to undergo a vetting process that included a polygraph examination and background check before they were allowed to shadow one of the department’s four paid full-time advocates.
“I wanted to force myself to get deeper and figure out that other side of who we are as people at our toughest time,” Moss said. “I felt a calling to be able to give back and help people whenever they need help.”
After being requested by law enforcement to the scene of a tragedy, advocates have to straddle a line between being comforting and direct when delivering news about a loss. They then assist the victim in any way they can — whether it’s making sure they are eating and drinking, connecting them with various resources or relaying information from law-enforcement officers.
“It takes somebody who’s both soft and tough at the same time,” said Saundra Blanding, the coordinator of the department’s victim services program. “You have to be pretty savvy at taking care of yourself.”
Sheriff Dennis Lemma said he is “extremely proud” of the agency’s victim advocates. The number of volunteers fluctuates; there are currently about four to eight.
“Every single day of the year, they are there to provide our residents assistance and reassurance during the most difficult times of their lives,” Lemma said. “It is a stressful, demanding job. They are heroes.”
One day in April 2016, Moss responded to Central Florida Regional Hospital, where a woman had been taken after she was run over and stabbed by her husband outside a Chili’s restaurant.
The woman was already dead by the time Moss arrived. Moss said he was standing near her body with a detective and another deputy when a young hospital security guard ran into the room.
The woman’s husband had appeared with a gun. The detective and deputy confronted the man, and gunfire was exchanged.
“The sound of gunshots right next to you is not something you ever forget,” said Moss, who’s married with three children. “If he had gotten past that door, he would’ve killed me.”
No one was injured in the shooting. The man fled to his truck, where his two young children were sitting in the back seat. He killed them both before turning the gun on himself on Interstate 4.
During another call, Moss went to an apartment complex where a man was suspected of shooting his girlfriend to death in front of her two young children — a 4-year-old girl and 9-year-old boy. Moss walked into the apartment lobby to speak with the children, who were still unaware that their mother had died. The son was drawing pictures of his mom.
“He kept asking me, ‘Is Mommy going to be OK? Is Mommy going to be OK?’ ” Moss said.
Moss said he noticed the boy was wearing only one shoe. He went back to the scene to look for the missing shoe and saw it lying next to the body.
“I thought, my gosh. He was standing next to his mom when she was killed,” Moss said. “And he ran out of his shoe.”
When Moss told the children that their mother was gone, the young girl didn’t understand. The boy was emotionless, only saying that he hated his mother’s boyfriend.
Rivera often helps victims of sexual assault.
The call that resonates with her involved a man who was molesting his two stepdaughters. Rivera was asked to assist the girls’ mother, who was blaming herself and saying that her daughters would never forgive her.
“I’m a mother,” Rivera said. “I could feel the pain that she’s going through.”
Rivera sat with the woman and held her hand, convincing her that it wasn’t her fault. Advocates are discouraged from praying with victims, lest they not be religious, but Rivera asked the woman if she would like to pray. She said yes.
“I started because I wanted to make a difference in people’s life, but being a [victim advocate] had changed my life,” she said. “The way I see life now is different.”
Rivera said she’s candid with her two children when they ask about her work. She knows better than most that another day isn’t guaranteed.
“You need to live life every day and be grateful every day,” Rivera said. “Because one day — you never know.”
Soneska Rivera, left, and David Moss are victim advocates, serving as the first source of comfort for victims of a traumatic event.
Soneska Rivera left, and David Moss volunteer as victim advocates with the Seminole Sheriff ’s Office.