Arts / Faith and Humanities / People of SU

A Compassionate Hand

Written by Allison Nitch

May 12, 2021

Katjarina (Katja) Hurt, ’13 MAPS in the outdoors.

Image credit: Yosef Chaim Kalinko

Katjarina (Katja) Hurt, ’13 MAPS

Alumna combines faith with healing as a chaplain for first responders.  

In the wake of a critical incident, a chaplain, staff psychologist or clergy member typically arrives to provide mental and emotional support to first responders. But this is often not the case for those who work in remote areas.

A new nonprofit by a Seattle University alumna and former public safety officer aims to fill an important need, providing support to wilderness first responders while accessing the psychological, spiritual and emotional resources needed to survive and thrive within the demands of an often high-stress profession.

Being among the few wilderness chaplains in the Pacific Northwest, Katjarina (Katja) Hurt, ’13 MAPS, knows firsthand how frequent exposure to trauma can take a toll on the emotional and mental well-being of first responders.

A human resource consultant at the Washington State Department of Corrections, Hurt is also founder and executive director of Wilderness Chaplains. The organization was inspired by her personal experience with tragedy.

In 2018, she received devastating news that changed everything. Her friend Stephen Kornbluth fell while descending Dewey Peak in Mt. Rainier National Park and did not survive his injuries.

Local mountaineer authorities were contacted, albeit unfamiliar with critical incident stress or how to immediately support the two survivors. The authorities eventually decided to call Hurt, a rare resource for wilderness crisis response.

“They didn’t know it was my best friend who had died. I collapsed on the floor sobbing,” Hurt recalls. “... I knew I had to go into chaplain mode. 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.”

Answering Her Call

Hailing from Vashon Island with an innate love of the outdoors, the former ski patrol volunteer traces her life’s mission back to years earlier and a particular experience she had while working as a public safety officer at Seattle University.

During a night shift in 2009, chatter over the police scanner caught her ear. It quickly escalated to screaming and an urgent distress call describing the shooting death of Seattle Police Officer Timothy Brenton.

“You could tell this burly cop was crying on the radio,” recalls Hurt, a graduate student at the time. “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 ... making sure they are okay?’”

She was struck with a realization. Rather than locating perpetrators, “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.”

Courageous Shifts

Hurt discovered Catholicism as an undergraduate student at Gonzaga University and continued her religious journey at Seattle U.

While her faith sustains her, she explains that a chaplain is a listener, rather than a preacher, and is meant to serve everyone. They “represent what is in the best interest of the other person’s heart, mind, body and soul.”

Hurt attributes her personal growth to her experience in Seattle U’s Pastoral Studies Program, which instilled in her confidence and courage.

Following graduation, Hurt earned a chaplaincy certificate and began her career in various positions within the Department of Corrections (DOC) in Missouri and later, Washington state.

In 2015, recurring exposure to traumatic and dangerous situations caught up with her. Upon noticing Hurt’s drastic change in demeanor, a supervisor suggested she apply for a curriculum designer position within the agency’s training and development unit. It led to a big career shift as she flourished in training and coaching instructors and took part in conferences and events as a guest trainer and speaker.

Grieving a Beloved Friend

After her friend’s accident, Hurt distanced herself from corrections work and began part-time employment as a behavioral health technician at Ashley House and ACES, organizations providing compassionate care for young adults, children and those with special health care needs. Helping her young clients allowed Hurt to feel other things besides grief.

“I was pretty numb from the loss of Stephen. ... It was good for me to be in a position to experience strong emotions unrelated to his death.”

Hurt’s unique skillset began to get attention within the search and rescue community. Calls from all over the area rolled in—each requesting training and information about where to find chaplains specializing in wilderness incidents. From there, the inspiration to create Wilderness Chaplains emerged.

Through the guidance and support of Angels for Angels—a Seattle nonprofit that offers fiscal sponsorship to social entrepreneurs—Wilderness Chaplains launched.

Staying Present

Wilderness Chaplains operates using a three-prong approach to crisis intervention: trainings (post-pandemic), presentations and support consultations.

Although COVID-19 halted in-person training opportunities, the organization is offering virtual programming, expanding its network of interested chaplains through word of mouth in the field and delivering emergency guidance sessions by phone and Zoom.

When responding in-person, Hurt and her team exceed all health and safety concerns by doubling up on PPE and bringing folding chairs to hold socially distant consults.

In a time when consoling gestures like laying your hand on someone or giving them a hug is now considered high-risk behavior, such support only occurs on a case-by-case basis.

“Part of ministry is presence. For chaplains and clergy, the notion of being the servant for God is so engrained,” says Hurt. “We sometimes forget ... we can give that gift to others.”

In turn, Hurt discovered a unique way to offer solace to individuals experiencing trauma: onsite coaching. While she can’t provide consoling touch during the pandemic, she can gently instruct a victim’s family or friend circle to do so effectively.

Taking Care

Hurt says once someone enters the responder world, which along with wilderness rescue teams includes emergency medical technicians (EMTs), paramedics, firefighters and police, and sees how much help is truly needed, it’s difficult to turn away. At the same time, post-traumatic stress and the risk of burnout is especially high.

According to the Journal of Emergency Medical Services, the people who work in these professions experience depression and suicide rates higher than those of the general public.

Hurt advises first responders seeking help to start with confidential methods, like peer support or seeking out a psychologist. If they’re uncomfortable with those options, she recommends the state’s Employee Assistance Program or a first responder crisis line.

Hurt returned to DOC due to her belief in its mission of improving public safety. “As a chaplain and through the nonprofit, I am exposed to many of different agencies and best practices, which help me bring new ideas and approaches to my work” with the state, she says.

“Having faith sustains me ... There are plenty of days where I come back from something horrific or I lost my friend or have seen other people lose theirs. Naturally, you question why this happened.”

She tends to her own well-being through outdoor activities like skiing, kayaking and exploratory hikes with her dogs and establishes days where she turns her phone off while a colleague covers for her.

Learn more about Wilderness Chaplains.