With her life in the trenches, one SF woman set out to help others coping with deadly violence 

click to enlarge Lynn Westry, who works for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, helps city families cope with the trauma of violent death. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike koozmin/The S.f. Examiner
  • Lynn Westry, who works for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, helps city families cope with the trauma of violent death.

Few screams pierced the quiet of a funeral service for a young man killed by gun fire late last summer, but muffled cries and faces streaked with tears filled the large Bayview church as a pretty woman with straight brown hair in a white skirt handed out handkerchiefs and filled cups of water for the mourners.

As usual, Lynn Westry's ready smile and youthful, freckled face were a strong presence. Her quiet but firm voice reassured the dead boy's mother before the ceremony, and even her ready laugh - subdued by the occasion - could not be suppressed as she chatted quietly with a few attendees to lighten the mood.

Westry's days and nights are often occupied by death or its aftermath.

She is not a coroner or an ambulance driver, not even a cop. She works for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, her uniform a white coat with the department's name printed on the back.

Yet Westry has something valuable to offer people: her time. As part of a small team of city employees, she helps San Francisco families cope with the trauma of violent death.

If she is not at the scene of a shooting calming an emotional and angry family, she is with them at the hospital or calling those related to the dead, walking them through funeral arrangements and burials.

As the longest-serving member of the crisis response team - a 10-year-old program started in 2004 to aid families through the emotional, financial and legal fallout of a violent death - Westry has witnessed the toll of violent crime. Shootings, stabbings, funerals, broken marriages, destroyed families - all are part of what Westry sees on the job.

"To me, the worst is to really hear a mother scream out," she said. "That's a sound you don't want to hear. It's indescribably piercing.

"Now I feel like I know that sound anywhere."

FINDING HER CALLING

Westry's own life changed dramatically one weekend in 1998. She was out of town camping and came home to a parent's worst nightmare.

"My oldest daughter, she was killed when she was 18, her and her best friend. Her name was Shinika. After that a lot of people started getting killed that I knew," she said of the 1998 car crash that killed her daughter and subsequent violence in her neighborhood. "It impacted every aspect of my life. I had to make sense of why my 18-year-old daughter who I loved very much ... had to die."

At first, Westry wanted to give up on everything. She did not want to get up in the morning or go to work. But instead of wallowing, she found a mission that in many ways has kept her going ever since.

After her daughter's death a wave of violence swept The City's southeast, where Westry was raised.

After an especially public death on Third Street in 2000, a well-attended community meeting was held in the neighborhood with several top city officials, Westry said.

"We all came together," she said. "And then everybody just went back to their own little life."

That did not sit well with Westry. Something had to be done.

So she started talking to anyone and everyone about what more could be done by The City to deal with such violence as a public health issue.

Later that year she called Barbara Garcia, who is now head of the Public Health Department. Back then, Garcia was deputy director.

"She had an open door and she really listened," said Westry, who talked to Garcia about how the increased violence was harming the Bayview and nearby neighborhoods and that there was little in place to aid the families left behind.

Garcia and then-Police Chief Heather Fong started talking about creating some kind of violence response effort, said Charlie Morimoto, associate director of the Public Health Department.

That year, on an unofficial basis, Westry started helping out with a small city violence response effort that grew out of a nonprofit neighborhood group.

Several years passed before The City started putting real resources into such programs.

Then in 2004, when The City's crisis response program was founded on a provisional basis, Westry was the first to volunteer, said Morimoto.

At first, there was no money for overtime so the volunteers were given comp time instead. By 2006, the team had six staffers and the program was officially born.

Nothing like this had been done before, said Morimoto, adding that it is a combination of clinical mental health work and simple compassion for families.

"It's really about [how] these are families," said Morimoto.

Westry has worked full time on the team since 2006, and she has seen things few can imagine.

She knows what a weapon can do to a person, having seen people with their heads blown off. She has been to the scene of killings and had to deal with families immediately after a death.

"I've been at a scene were it got really hostile because it took the medical examiner about four hours to get to the scene to take the body," Westry said. "So the body laid on the ground for hours."

But she has also seen the aftermath -- destroyed families, destroyed individuals. A lot of people simply move out of The City for fear or because they just cannot take living near the scene of the crime, she said.

"Everybody doesn't come back well from that," Westry said.

COUNTLESS DEATHS

Two crisis response team members go to every homicide in The City - they are notified by police -and try to introduce themselves to the family of the victim, said Westry. If there is a crowd at the crime scene, they help to calm it down. If the family is at the hospital, the team goes there. Then the team tries to walk the family through as much after that as it can. But mostly they help arrange funerals.

"Without her really being a part of my life at that time, I don't know what would have happened," said Mary Cobbins, a radiologist at San Francisco General whose grandson, Damariae Lewis, was killed in 2012.

Westry helped run and organize the funeral, Cobbins said. She came by and drove Cobbins to appointments, always playing calm music.

"She just shared with me that everything's gonna be fine, just trust God," said Cobbins. "She talked to me about her experiences ... how that almost broke her. She knew where I had been."

Lavelle Shaw, a Muni driver whose son was killed in September, met Westry soon after the death. "I met her the night my son got shot," he said.

"She was a godsend," Shaw said. "She helped me through the whole process."

In the chaos following his son's death, Shaw said Westry was there to deal with the funeral and all the details that his family was unable to cope with at the time.

Westry keeps the programs from every funeral she has attended. The box is overflowing under her desk.

There are so many, each covered in photos of the dead, that she cannot recall them all.

"It's well in the hundreds, literally. I couldn't even count," Westry said.

But when she spread them out across the floor of her office on a recent afternoon, the names and in many cases the incidents came back to her.

"This young lady in pink was killed in Antioch, but she's from San Francisco."

"He was killed over on Army Street."

"She was killed on Third Street, 2008.

"This guy got killed after just being married."

"This young man was killed right off of Oakdale, right in front of his grandmother's house."

"He was killed on Jerold."

"Him and his brother died two weeks apart."

"This young lady was killed on Portrero; someone just came by shooting and she was walking."

STAYING STRONG

Years of funerals and deaths have taken their toll on Westry, even though the Public Health Department provides counseling and debriefing and sometimes simply tells team members to take a break. Westry has "fears that [she] once didn't have."

The details of so many murders and random deaths since 2000 are stuck inside her head.

Westry's fears can sound strange. She does not like her daughter to sit in the car and talk on her phone. Westry has been to funerals of people who were shot while sitting in their cars.

Westry does not like sitting at a light too long in her car. One lunch hour a few years ago she was at a stop light with a co-worker and they were caught in middle of a drive-by.

"We actually saw the person get killed," Westry said. "We were sitting right there."

If asked, Westry will admit that all of this death weighs on her, and at times brings back the pain of her own daughter's death. But her faith in God and the families she helps keep her going.

"Some days I think I've had enough," she said. "And then I meet another family that melts my heart, and I'm back."

About The Author

Jonah Owen Lamb

Jonah Owen Lamb

Bio:
Born and raised on a houseboat in Sausalito, Lamb has written for newspapers in New York City, Utah and the San Joaquin Valley. He was most recently an editor at the San Luis Obispo Tribune for nearly three years. He has written for The S.F. Examiner since 2013 and covers criminal justice and planning.
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