By Alex Lupul
In the name of crime and tragedy, Victim Services Niagara is using an evening of good food and laughter to make a difference.
Working out of Niagara Regional Police headquarters in Niagara Falls, Victim Services Niagara connects victims of a criminal act, traumatic circumstance or disaster with a support team of crisis responders who help them cope with the impact of distressing moments, 24-hours a day, seven days a week.
The non-profit organization uses a team of nearly 100 dedicated volunteer crisis responders, who go through 75 hours of training and a rigorous screening process, to assist victims of such situations as abduction or suicide.
Last year, the organization assisted nearly 1,600 clients. In an average year there are more than 1,200 victims of crime and tragedy in Niagara, resulting in 495 on scene/in-person visits and 889 followup phone calls.
While the program is housed in police headquarters, the organization isn't a part of the police service, nor is the program funded by it.
"I think that's where people have kind of overlooked us as a charity of choice in the past," said Angela Arsenio, executive director. "We're funded by the Ministry of the Attorney General and, unfortunately, they reduced their funding to us a couple of years ago by 25 per cent."
Victim Services Niagara receives just under $200,000 from the ministry, with an increase expected soon, which will be used to serve gender-based-violence clients.
While the budget has undergone a significant cut, call volume has nearly doubled since 2013, forcing the program to accomplish more with less.
"We will be getting more funding from the Ministry of the Attorney General shortly, but it still won't be enough to cover everything we do," said Arsenio. "That's why we're in the position of reaching out to our community and seeing if we can get some extra support to do what we do, to keep us 24/7."
As a result, Arsenio visited Niagara Falls city council and made a request for funding of a new canine program, a request that council was unable to fulfil.
That's where Ruth's Chris Steak House stepped in.
"When the management team at Ruth's Chris heard Angela speak at council, an organization that many people tend to overlook, they immediately jumped on-board to assist in any way that they could," said Katarina Etezadi, event manager and community outreach in collaboration with Ruth's Chris Steak House.
On May 3, Ruth's Chris Steak House will be hosting a fundraising dinner to benefit Victim Services Niagara. For $100 a person, supporters will be treated to a five-course meal at the Niagara Falls restaurant followed by a live comedy show at Yuk Yuk's.
Dave Hemstad will be the headliner of the show, with Ted Morris also being featured, while Scott Faulconbridge will act as MC. All three comedians have been featured on Just for Laughs.
"I love the fact that someone can come and have a dinner and hear about the seriousness of what we do, and also go and enjoy the rest of their evening," said Arsenio. "I think it's really important, it's good to have balance in this work."
Proceeds from next month's fundraiser dinner will be used to establish a canine assistance program.
Similar to the highly trained dogs provided to those with visual or auditory impairments, Victims Services Niagara would receive a dog that fits the program's needs. Out of a lineup of five people, the highly attuned dog would be capable of identifying which person is under duress, going directly to that person to assist.
Arsenio feels that the dog will be an enrichment to the work that the program is already doing. "Sometimes emergency responders can seem intimidating, for children, youth, or people with a disorder where communication is a problem," she said. "But a dog is a great equalizer. A dog can come in and provide support and be less intimidating than a person in uniform."
The trained dog will act as a "silent partner" to children and vulnerable adults when they want to file a report. In such situations, oftentimes adults can't accompany a child as they may influence the interview. But during these moments a dog can be present, providing the child with the silent support needed during that time.
Arsenio remains grateful for the support from Ruth's Chris.
"It's really an incredible gift for an organization like us, who are so small, but the need is so great."