Victims Advocate Network (VAN)

VAN Group

Mission Statement: 

Victims Advocate Network (VAN) is a community-led, first response team comprised of licensed social workers and trained volunteer advocates, working in partnership with UTPD, Austin Area Emergency Services, and other campus and community partners to provide immediate and ongoing emotional and practical support to students, faculty, staff, and visitor victims and witnesses impacted by crime or distressing events.

Vision Statement: 

To provide innovative, trauma-informed, holistic, and community-driven first response within the University of Texas System and beyond.

Our Story

The Victims Advocate Network (VAN) launched in January 2019 as a group of UT employees who volunteered to provide on-call availability for immediate response to any UT community member or visitor who received a police response following a crime or distressing event. In its first four years of operation, VAN Volunteers have contributed more than 16,000 hours of on-call service and have provided immediate Psychological First Aid to more than 600 community members. VAN’s Social Worker Case Managers are licensed and provide follow-up outreach and support, beyond the initial response provided by a VAN Volunteer Advocate. 

University leadership approved expanding the VAN program in Fall 2023, launching its own dedicated staff unit for Victim Services. VAN’s staff now includes a Volunteer Coordinator, Victim’s Services Staff Unit Supervisor, four Case Managers, as well as paid Graduate Social Work student interns. VAN confidentially responds to community members and are trained to provide advocacy for police interviews, as well as campus and community resources.

Our Staff
Headshot of Marica Kelley smiling at the camera.



Marica is a licensed master social worker (LMSW) who has worked directly with victims of crime since 2015, and with youth in long-term residential treatment and homeless shelters for several years prior. As VAN Program Manager, Marica supervises our dedicated program staff, volunteer advocates and graduate student interns. Marica is passionate about the need for Social Workers and mental health professionals to hold space and impact change in our communities where first responders have been relied upon so heavily for care-taking following crimes or distressing events. Her focus is building innovative, community-led programs in this space, as well as maintaining best practices in trauma-informed, victim-centered, competent, compassionate, and culturally responsive services for everyone.




Marica Kelley, LMSW (she/her)
Victims Advocate Network Program Manager


Ryann Van smiles into the camera. The headshot displays her shoulders-up.



Ryann (pronouns: she/her) is a licensed master social worker (LMSW) who has worked with clients in various settings since 2007. She has worked with children and families in the foster care system, children and adolescents experiencing mental health crises, and as a service coordinator in an affordable housing complex in Austin, TX. In these roles, she has worked with people from a wide range of backgrounds including but not limited to children of all ages, individuals experiencing chronic poverty, individuals living with a physical disability, mental and/or substance abuse disorders, and older adults. Ryann utilizes a strengths-based, solutions-focused, trauma-informed approach in her work with clients. Her professional interests include the impacts of trauma across the lifespan and understanding and learning multiple strategies for healing trauma.



Ryann Grindstaff, LMSW
Victim’s Services Unit Supervisor

Sonja Simmons smiles at the camera in a headshot.


As VAN's Volunteer Coordinator, Sonja champions VAN's mission in the community, and recruits, coordinates, trains, and supervises VAN's dedicated volunteer advocates. Prior to joining VAN, Sonja spearheaded several national grassroots campaigns from Washington, DC which supported nuclear energy policy and federally chartered credit unions. After moving home to Texas, Sonja's professional focus turned more personal, dedicating her time to education, literacy, and orphan care. In 2008, she founded the Davis Moon Project (DMP), a 501(c)3 that regularly organizes volunteer literacy missions to rural Ethiopia in support of the 2000 students at the DMP School and two orphanages. Sonja's experience also includes time with the Austin Independent School District and University of Texas High School. She has traveled extensively and lived or worked in Saudi Arabia, France, and Ethiopia. She is always looking for her next adventure. Sonja lives in Austin with her teenage son.



Sonja Simmons
Victims Advocate Network (VAN) Coordinator

April Oviedo smiles into the camera in a headshot.



April is a certified instructor in both Adult and Youth Mental Health First Aid, as well as all MHFA specialized population modules, Psychology First Aid, Skills for Psychology Recovery, and Counseling in Access to Lethal Means (CALM). Before joining VAN, April was the Lead Training Coordinator for Integral Care's Mental Health First Aid program. She has also been an advocate and voice for survivors of interpersonal violence for 15 years. April's passion for providing mental health education and advocacy throughout the community has provided her with the skills to help individuals and groups thrive in their journey toward recovery and mental well-being.





April Ashley Oviedo, LMSW
Victim Advocate Case Manager


Volunteer Advocates


VAN’s Volunteer Advocates are composed of UT-Austin Staff & Faculty from Departments and programs all over campus. Many advocates attended UT as students and/or have worked at UT for quite some time, and share a strong connection and commitment to UT's community. Many advocates have relevant service experience, such as employment in the medical field as EMTs or nurses, or from UT”s esteemed Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault (IDVSA), as well as volunteer service experience with the National Suicide Hotline and local agencies serving survivors of domestic violence or sexual assault. Having reached a cohort of 25 advocates prior to COVID, our group continues to grow and welcome new volunteers to help us always answer the call.

What We Do


When a 911 call comes in, a UTPD officer responds to the scene. The responding officer will call for VAN if any student, staff or visitor experiences or witnesses a crime OR distressing event. VAN advocates immediately connect to person(s) in need by phone to assess whether they would prefer an immediate phone response or are willing to wait briefly for an in-person response. Advocates respond to the scene within 30 minutes if an in-person response is requested.

On scene or by phone, VAN advocates provide:

  • Psychological First Aid
  • Crisis & de-escalation interventions
  • Needs assessment
  • Safety planning
  • Information on victim's rights, available services, and resources
  • Practical support; providing water or a blanket, help to make a phone call or to arrange transportation
  • Immediate linkage to campus or community resources

VAN Staff provides case management follow-up care:

  • Law enforcement, victim interview accompaniment, and advocacy (including collaborating with partners at Austin Police Department when a case in their jurisdiction involves UT community members)
  • Safety assessments and individualized safety planning
  • Letters of support to landlords advocating for release (without penalty) from lease due to experiencing intimate partner violence, sexual assault, or stalking/harassment
  • Referrals to resources and care coordination with campus and community partners
  • Support applying for and navigating Crime Victim's Compensation (CVC), which reimburses medical expenses, lost wages, and other expenses for victims of specific crime types
  • Provide death notifications of and for UT community members in partnership with UTPD and other police agencies
Client Testimonial

"You've been really supportive and provided me with various resources that I would not have known if you were not there contacting me and checking in with me."

"The eagerness with which the advocates listened and engaged me was helpful. The questions they asked made me think more about areas which might have been troublesome in my recovery from my incident, and issues which may arise in the future."

"I think it helped to have someone talking to me while I was waiting to see if the police officers needed any other information from me. That kept me from just sitting and rehashing the event over and over while waiting."

"For my personal situation, I believe pretty much everything the advocates did and said was perfect. Their approach was eager, but not pushy or aggressive. I appreciated that."

"I sincerely appreciate all the help that was provided and the seriousness with which VAN advocated for me. It helped me close a very scary situation and helped me move forward"

"I didn't know I would need them, but was beyond grateful that they were available to me! I can say with 100% certainty that I would not be where I am now if I wasn't able to get this help at no cost to me."

Police Officer Feedback for VAN

"The VAN volunteer was an excellent resource in translating and was cognizant of the language barriers between the officer and the victim."

"Both VAN advocates were extremely professional and helpful in calming the victim, as well as helpful in finding accommodations for the victim."

"VAN's response was great with this call. The victim was appropriately consoled and their concerns validated. The victim showed an improvement after VAN arrived and appeared to be feeling much better. VAN was a great addition to our team for that call."

"Advocate did a great job. He responded quickly and ready to tackle the challenging tasks at hand. I look forward to working with him again."