Responding to a need that was brought to light with the tragic death of a friend, former islander Katjarina (Katja) Hurt has started a nonprofit based in Puget Sound to educate and support critical incident responders working in remote areas. “Wilderness Chaplains” offers responder training, community education, crisis resources, chaplaincy services and soon, even a chaplain academy — and Hurt will hold a special introduction to the organization and its offerings, for any interested islanders, from 6 to 8 p.m. Monday at Vashon Island Fire & Rescue.
Hurt describes the presentation as “an initial tool kit” for anyone interested in learning how to support others in crisis situations. She wants people to feel empowered with some training under their belts, if they ever need it.
And for those who are not sure what a chaplain is or does, Hurt notes that chaplains are often misunderstood, as there is no universal definition for the role. But the one thing that ties them all together, she said, is that they are first responders for emotional trauma.
“As a chaplain you are nondenominational, interfaith,” she explained. “I’m not a pastor. I don’t have a church, and I’m not helping people with religion. It’s more about just being with people and supporting them.”
According to the Wilderness Chaplains’ website, chaplains are trained in “mental health, pastoral care and crisis response” to be a “reassuring and trustworthy presence.”
“We’re there to help people move forward through difficult or traumatic situations, regardless of what that looks like for each individual,” Hurt said. “I’m the most successful if I get in there, get them set up with resources, and never hear from them again after I leave.”
Born and raised on Vashon, Hurt still has strong ties to the island.
“My mom is still with the fire department there. I really wanted to do our first event on the island because it’s just been such a big part of my life,” she said.
Hurt’s mother is Brigitte Schran Brown, a longtime emergency medical technician and the current chair of the fire board.
After graduating from Vashon High School in 2005, Hurt attended Gonzaga University to study communications and later received her master’s degree in pastoral services from Seattle University. Then she spent a few years as a chaplain with VIFR and the island’s sheriff’s deputies, sharing the duties with Father Tryphon.
When she moved to Olympia to work for the Department of Corrections, she had to give up helping out on Vashon, but she never gave up helping.
Whether on the ski patrol at Snoqualmie Pass or as a part-time behavioral tech at a community home for medically fragile children, caring for others in need is what those who know Hurt say she simply does.
One of those people is Preston Bhang, a 32-year (now retired) veteran of the Seattle Fire Department and director of the Police & Fire Chaplain Academy in Burien. Bhang trained Hurt to be a chaplain.
“She’s an amazing gal,” he said of his former pupil. “Really people-oriented.”
And by her own admission, an avid mountaineer.
It was through this particular pursuit that Hurt became best friends and climbing partners with Stephen Kornbluth, who died last August in a climbing accident on Dewey Peak in Mount Rainier National Park.
While she was not on that particular climb, she was one of the first to receive the news, and though grieving herself, knew that his group was still on the mountain and would need help as they were forced to deal with the loss and to leave his body behind. She went into chaplain mode and helped coordinate the response.
“Katja was not only there for me, but for all of those involved in the event,” Joy Cross, Kornbluth’s girlfriend said. “Her knowledge and kindness was a lifeline for many of us.”
The tragedy brought many questions to mind for Hurt and the others involved.
“We all began to notice a need and raised questions that she was answering,” Cross added. “Who is there for the friend that just did CPR on his lifeless colleague in the field? How does he ever go back to that place and enjoy that earth? There’s a fatigue settling into our saviors and rescuers in the field. The loss responders deal with on a daily basis is not humanly normal. But we make it normal, because helping our fellow human companions is our drive in this life. And that’s where you’ll find Katja and the Wilderness Chaplains.”
Through her grief, Hurt was inspired. The idea for the nonprofit was born from her drive to provide help to those who deal with crises in remote areas not typically served by chaplains.
“It’s a wonderful idea,” Bhang said of the endeavor. “I can tell you from experience it would be great to have a chaplain, or someone trained in that kind of support, at the scene instead of several hours away in a parking lot somewhere. Let’s train our wilderness first responders so they can be there for the victims, survivors, family, friends, each other and other responders on the team.”
Bill Gillespie, president of the Washington State Search and Rescue Volunteer Advisory Council, is already a fan.
“We see this as a natural fit,” he said. “Most search and rescue personnel are volunteers, and they deal with so much emotion, frustration and PTSD issues … many just drop out because they have no one to talk to. I think this will be a tremendous help to them.”
Gillespie has invited Hurt to present “Who Rescues the Rescuers?” at the Washington State Search and Rescue conference in June.
“King County uses a lot of CERT personnel,” he added. “We see this as a good connection for them as well — chaplains aren’t available everywhere, so it would be great to get people trained in areas where they might need assistance.”
Hurt will present Wilderness Chaplains: Compassionate, Crisis Care at 6 p.m. Monday at VIFR. All are welcome to attend. The event is free, but donations are encouraged. For more information, see wildernesschaplains.org.