Asked how she became so deeply involved in helping the families of police officers, Kristen Sweaza, who married Fountain Valley Lt. Robert Sweaza, has a quick quip.
“My husband thought I needed a hobby,” she says with a laugh.
In the last couple of years, Kristen and Robert Sweaza have been helping families of officers navigate and survive the mountains of grief, the fear, and the stress that can go with having, and sometimes losing, partners on the front lines of law enforcement.
Kristen Sweaza runs a monthly support group for the wives of law enforcement officers that is quickly outgrowing the meeting space in her home. She is in the process of creating a nonprofit, Blue Wives Matter, to raise funds for families of fallen or struggling officers. She is also involved in advocacy with groups such as Blue HELP, which works to promote mental health among first responders.
“I think it’s been great,” Robert Sweaza said. “She’s had the opportunity to do something she enjoys beyond raising kids. She’s made connections all over the country.”
Kristen Sweaza’s latest effort began a little over a week ago, when she learned about the death of Officer Greggory Casillas, who was killed when he was shot through a door after chasing a reckless driving suspect into an apartment building.
Although the families have never met, Kristen Sweaza is selling Thin Blue Line hats as a fundraiser to support the Casillases. The adjustable navy blue baseball-style caps are decorated with a heart and a blue line. The hats sell for $20 on her Facebook page and she says 100 percent will go to the family; she is paying for postage and taxes.
Coincidentally, the Sweazas learned of Casillas’ death the same day they helped stage a one-year memorial and fundraiser for the family of Rick Nilos Jr., a 35-year-old Fountain Valley officer and father of three who died in his sleep in 2017.
“Instead of just writing a check, I wanted to do something more,” Kristen Sweaza said. “We’ve lost so many officers already.”
Robert Sweaza said although the families of fallen officers receive benefits, it can sometimes be a lengthy process.
“Sometimes they need immediate assistance,” he said, which makes quick-reacting fundraising events like his wife’s more important.
On March 10, a Celebration of Life event attended by about 150 coworkers, friends, and family, was held for Nilos, who died on March 29, 2017.
“We had a great time,” Kristen Sweaza said. “Even though it rained, everyone showed up.”
The death of Nilos stunned the small Fountain Valley community, which hadn’t lost an active-duty officer in 15 years, since Officer Rob Gallaugher died on the job.
The department has adopted the Nilos family into its community.
“Since Rick’s death we see each other,” Robert Sweaza said. “Sometimes it’s just about an opportunity to speak with someone. We like to spend time with the kids as kind of mentors.”
The Sweazas know all about adopting others. Thirteen years ago, they adopted their son Dylan, whom Robert Sweaza had met on the job. The Sweazas rescued Dylan from the foster care system and offered him a home. Dylan, now 26, has graduated from college, works as a police dispatcher in Michigan, and is considering advancing his career in law enforcement, possibly in forensics.
Robert Sweaza said that for his wife, Nilos’ death was a “springboard to the activities she’s been doing.”
And while Robert Sweaza jokes that the house is now swimming in postage and packing materials, he is happy to see his wife engaged in meaningful work.
The support group, which has grown to 40 members since it launched in July, meets in Sweaza’s house. Robert Sweaza prepares lunch for the women, then hightails it before they get into the mimosas.
Kristen Sweaza said the group is open to spouses of first responders and is a safe place to share their worries, concerns and, when needed, grief. Information is available at email@example.com.
According to Kristen Sweaza, the group has a good mix of veteran and young wives who can offer perspective for issues big and small.
“There was nothing like this when I was a young wife,” she said.
Since Nilos’ death, the Fountain Valley Police Department has also been reminded of the importance of mental issues on the job, including “tactical wellness training” and awareness of “ongoing stressors,” according to Robert Sweaza. “We need to learn to do a better job of taking care of ourselves and each other.”
The Sweazas and other members of the department made a special point of supporting Rick Nilos’ widow, Becky, and their three boys between the ages of 8 and 12.
As Kristen Sweaza puts it, “they’re still family.”