A First Responder for the Heart and Soul: DOC Employee Launches Non-profit Organization to Train Chaplains for Wilderness

Department of Corrections Employee Katjarina Hurt. Hurt is also the founder and executive director for Wilderness Chaplains.

Editor’s Note: This article was first published on The Washington State Department of Corrections’ website.

By Rachel Friederich

OLYMPIA, Washington—As an avid mountaineer and volunteer police chaplain, Katjarina Hurt knows firsthand the mental and emotional toll frequent exposure to trauma can have on first responders.

In urban settings, there is usually a chaplain, a staff psychologist or someone from the clergy to provide mental and emotional support following a critical incident. But for those who work in wilderness settings, this is often not the case.

That’s why Hurt, a Washington State Department of Corrections human resource consultant and former community corrections officer, started a non-profit organization dedicated to helping rescuers who work in remote environments, give and receive compassionate crisis care.

“Chaplains are like the first responders for the heart and soul,” Hurt says. “I like that I can come up to someone whose life has collapsed all around them, and by the time I leave, they’re starting to put the pieces back together.”

It’s the driving force behind Hurt’s organization, Wilderness Chaplains. The Puget Sound-based organization provides training, education and resources to chaplains so they can deploy to emergencies in remote areas. Hurt is the organizations founder and executive director.

The pandemic put a hold on an in-person wilderness chaplain academy. However, Hurt is arranging virtual trainings and building a network of interested chaplains who will eventually be able to deploy to incidents in the wilderness.

It Stemmed From Grief

Katjarina Hurt and Stephen Kornbluth

Wilderness Chaplains came about as an indirect result of the death of Hurt’s best friend, Stephen Kornbluth, following a 2018 climbing accident in Mount Rainier National Park.

Hurt, who was working as a curriculum designer for DOC at the time, had backed out of a scheduled climb with Kornbluth and other friends because she wasn’t feeling well the night before the trip.

When the accident happened, her friends had called local mountaineering authorities. One of the people they talked to didn’t know much about addressing critical incident stress or immediate resources to gather for the survivors. So that person called Hurt.

“They didn’t know it was my best friend who had died and when they called me, I collapsed on the floor sobbing,” Hurt said. “But I also knew I had to go into chaplain mode because I know what needs to be done. God help me, I wished there was someone else who knew what needed to be done, but I didn’t know where to find another one of me.”

In the days that followed, Hurt did things that chaplains do. She delivered the death notification to Kornbluth’s girlfriend, arranged support plans for the survivors, and brought in another chaplain to provide a critical incident stress debriefing. Critical incident stress briefings are specific techniques designed to help people deal with physical or psychological symptoms associated with trauma exposure. She found professionals who could listen to the survivors and let them express whatever emotions they’re feeling. Grief. Sadness. Anger. Depression. Anxiety. All to let them know that even after their world had been shattered, they weren’t alone. Hurt found resources for herself, too, knowing she would not be able to get through the loss of her best friend alone.

Word about Hurt’s actions and her unique background spread through the search and rescue community. She began getting calls from people all over the area wanting to know if she could train them and how to find chaplains who specialize in responding to non-urban incidents. It’s what inspired Hurt to start Wilderness Chaplains.

Exploring Public Safety Careers

Katjarina Hurt on Ski Patrol at the Summit on Snoqualmie

Providing solace to others overwhelmed by grief wasn’t always something Hurt considered as a career path. Hurt had at first set her sights at a career in advertising or journalism. In fact, she earned her first bachelor’s degree in communications from Gonzaga University. When she graduated in 2009, it was in the middle of the recession. Entry-level job openings were nearly non-existent, so Hurt had to figure out a Plan B.

When applying to jobs, Hurt relied on her experience as a first responder. Hurt was born in the Pacific Northwest, on Vashon Island, so she said it was only natural she and her family would work in the wilderness. Hurt’s mother was a ski patroller. Hurt regularly volunteered for the patrol in high school and college, providing first aid to injured skiers and helping search and rescue teams look for lost skiers.

The ski patrol experience came in handy when she got a job as a public safety officer at Seattle University. While she worked the graveyard shift at the university, she attended classes during the day. She studied theology, because “it seemed interesting.” But she didn’t yet know how studying religion and working in public safety would shape the rest of her career.

One fateful night in October 2009, Hurt overheard some chatter over the police scanner that would have a lasting impact on her. She heard screaming and an urgent distress call in which a police officer described what the community would soon learn was the shooting death of Seattle Police Officer Timothy Brenton.

Hurt and her co-workers began response protocols, in case the shooter tried to hide on campus. As she listened to the sirens and the babble over the scanner, Hurt noticed a drastic shift in tone in the officers’ voices.

“You could tell this burly cop was crying on the radio,” Hurt recalled. “I thought ‘Who goes out there and takes care of the cops? Who is there with the family of this guy who has just been killed?’ Who is the one out there making sure these guys are OK as they process the body of their brother?’ That’s when it started nagging at me that I don’t want to be the one out there looking for the bad guy. I want to go out and hug all of these officers because they sound so devastated. That’s when I learned what chaplains were and found my calling.”

Help is Not Always ‘Sunshine and Roses’

Hurt earned a master’s degree in Theology and Ministry from Seattle University in 2013 and also got a chaplaincy certificate from a police and fire chaplain’s academy in Burien. Around this time, Hurt married a soldier who got stationed at Ft. Leonard Wood in Missouri.

After moving to Missouri, Hurt found a job as a probation officer for the Missouri Department of Corrections, where she managed a caseload of over 100 people including interstate compact cases and pre-sentencing investigations. As a pre-sentence investigator, Hurt’s interviewed victims and their family members and the perpetrator, then worked with attorneys to recommend sentencing ranges to the judge prior to someone’s sentencing.

Working as a probation officer made Hurt realize getting people the help they need often isn’t pleasant, and you often don’t know the final outcome of the service you provide.

For example, Hurt once had to go to court to ask a judge to revoke the community supervision of a drug-addicted mother. The constant drug use and frequent arrests made the mom a danger to society and her children’s safety. When Hurt met her, she was facing a multi-year prison sentence.

“She absconded, lied, and fought tooth and nail every step of the way,” Hurt recalled. “I remember the woman’s mother came up to me. She already had custody of the children. She said ‘It’s going to be really hard for them to not have a mother for the next several years, but I think you’re going to be saving her life, and these girls won’t wind up motherless.’”

The decision to revoke her supervision made Hurt want to cry, but “Making a difference is a tough pill to swallow sometimes, because we can’t always make a difference with sunshine and roses.”

Corrections employees rarely know if a client succeeds in turning their lives around once they are off department supervision and are no longer required to check in. Hurt says the uneasiness of not knowing how it all turns out is part of the job description. But she said one of the most cathartic ways to deal with those difficult feelings is to talk them out with someone you trust.

“It challenges us to learn to navigate the feelings of discomfort and lack of control,” Hurt said. “Sometimes getting the unclear thoughts out in words is the best thing we can do because they don’t spin around in your brain anymore.”

From Corrections to Teaching

Katjarina Hurt speaks at the Interagency Committee of State Employed Women’s annual Celebration meeting at the Washington State Legislative Building in Olympia.

In 2015, Hurt returned to Washington. The Department of Corrections hired her as a community corrections officer in Tacoma. She was once again managing interstate compact cases and homeless individuals.

After another year of working in the field, Hurt said the exposure to traumatic and dangerous situations began taking a toll on her overall wellness. She wasn’t eating or sleeping well, worked a lot of overtime, and avoided hanging out with her friends. A supervisor noticed the changes and suggested she apply for a curriculum designer position within the agency’s training and development unit. Curriculum designers create and teach annual in-service trainings for employees.

Hurt ended up getting the job. It invigorated her.

“I am really drawn to guiding people, helping them find their way,” Hurt said. “I fell in love with it and I think that’s where my big career shift happened.”

Taking a Break from Corrections

As Hurt flourished in her new role, she began to draw attention both in training and coaching new instructors. Several state agencies and professional groups asked her to be a guest trainer or speak at conferences and events.

When the accident happened in 2018, Hurt hit a wall. She could no longer be her best self at work.

“My life was just so upside down that I had to take a break,” Hurt said. “I took a lot of leave and when I came back, I just couldn’t focus on work anymore. I questioned everything about my life and my career. I made the really hard decision to resign. I needed to go home and grieve.”

When she took some time off, doors started opening.

Getting through the Grief

In 2018 and 2019, Hurt distanced herself from corrections. She began forming Wilderness Chaplains and got part-time jobs as a behavioral health technician at Ashley House and ACES, organizations that provide compassionate care for young adults and children or special health care needs.

Several of her clients were kids with autism. Helping them allowed Hurt to feel other things besides grief.

“I was pretty numb from the loss of Stephen and it was good for me to be in a position to experience strong emotions unrelated to his death,” Hurt said. “I knew I made a difference when the parents would tell me their kids looked forward to seeing me or had less behavior problems after a session.”

Hurt started seeing herself differently.

“The programs I designed for the kids aren’t meant to change them or ‘fix’ them because there’s nothing broken about them,” Hurt said. “I started looking at myself, my friends and family with this new lens of being more loving and forgiving of our faults and imperfections, instead focusing on what brings joy and fulfilment in life. It made me less of a perfectionist and more open-minded and appreciative of people’s differences.

With a renewed energy, Hurt set to work growing Wilderness Chaplains.

Redefining ‘Chaplain’

Katjarina Hurt takes a call during her shift as a volunteer police chaplain.

In early 2020, Hurt returned to DOC as a human resources consultant in its statewide records unit.

In her spare time, Hurt continued her chaplaincy work, volunteering for the Olympia Police Department and King County Sheriff’s Office. Being open-minded and an advocate of diversity is something Hurt says is key to being a good chaplain.

She’s on a mission to broaden the definition of a chaplain. Some agencies, like the DOC, have changed the term ‘chaplain’ to ‘institutional religious coordinator.’ Legislation enacted in 2019 mandated that change in language, to be inclusive to people of all faiths.

Most lexicons historically defined a chaplain as someone who is Christian. Hurt noted when she first decided to serve as a police chaplain, a lot of the ones she met were retired, Caucasian, male ministers. Hurt is quick to point out she is not a religious coordinator; She would rather re-define chaplains to be more inclusive for those who aren’t Christian, or who don’t follow a religion at all. In fact, Hurt said she’s gotten into heated debates with other chaplains who seem to be too ‘Christian-focused.’

“A chaplain doesn’t preach, a chaplain listens,” Hurt said. “I’m trying to create a culture shift that if a chaplain holds up a Bible and starts preaching, everyone knows they’re not being a chaplain. A chaplain should serve everyone and should represent what is in the best interest of the other person’s heart, mind, body, and soul. I firmly believe that anyone, even agnostics and atheists can do that.”

It’s OK to Ask for Help

One of the most important lessons Hurt has learned from her journey through grief and working alongside those in law enforcement professions is that post-traumatic stress injuries are very real.

The Journal of Emergency Medical Services and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (pdf) have scores of peer-reviewed literature showing people who work in these professions experience depression and suicide rates that are higher than those of the general public. And a lot of times, people who work in these fields might be reluctant to seek help because of a perceived stigma of being treated differently or not being trusted to return to work after taking some time off to address those issues.

Hurt advises first responders start with confidential ways to seek help like peer support or a staff psychologist. If they don’t feel comfortable with those options, then they should find something more removed from the workplace, such as the state’s Employee Assistance Program or a first responder crisis line.

“It’s truly a matter of life and death,” Hurt said, noting that she has openly sought counseling herself and it has been tremendously beneficial. “You wouldn’t let a stab wound continue to drip blood until it finally kills you. Don’t let your stress injuries do that to you. They will bleed you dry if you do not accept what is happening and treat the injury.”

Helping first responders treating their stress injuries is one of the things Hurt wants Wilderness Chaplains to do because it’s where her heart is.

“I feel the most fulfilled when I can come into someone’s life and help them realize their own strengths, make a plan and start to move forward, and then I can back away and I know that they’re doing what they need to do now,” Hurt said. “That keeps me doing what I do. I keep answering the phone. I might feel exhausted some days, but I know I was meant to do this. When you need me to be there, I’ll be like, ‘Absolutely! I may need coffee, but I’m on my way!’”

Wilderness Chaplains is a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization that is registered with the Secretary of State’s Combined Fund Drive charities. To learn more, visit Wilderness Chaplains or the Washington State Combined Fund Drive.