CARDINAL – They are the ones we count on to rush in when we are hurt, terrified, trapped, traumatized.
No matter the circumstances or the dangers involved, to us they are the people who never fail to answer our calls for help.
These people (some of them volunteers) are our first responders: police, firefighters, correctional officers, 911 dispatchers and paramedics.
Every day, every night, 365 days a year, we rely on them when we need help.
Yet who cares for these care givers when they are in need?
First Responders United, operating out of St. John’s United Church in Cardinal, is a completely unique program, and specifically designed to help first responders who may be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“We are ourselves very familiar with what first responders face,” said Rev. Dr. Edward Murray, minister at St. John’s and clinical director of the First Responders United program. “We understand the trauma, the ugliness and the tragedy that first responders must deal with. We knew there was a need for services beyond what could often be offered at work, or through unions and federations.”
The program recognizes that some first responders suffer from symptoms of PTSD, symptoms which can range from acute physical distress to mental and emotional difficulties.
All too often such responders feel deeply isolated and alone. They may have withdrawn from family and friends, suffering in silence or perhaps exhibiting forms of anti-social behaviours.
This is where First Responders United steps in to offer help.
The First Responders United program in Cardinal brings groups of 12 together (separate sessions for men and women) for week long sessions, under the guidance of Rev. Murray and his colleague, Roberta Weir, a registered psycho therapist.
Both clinical directors Murray and Weir are able to draw on their own backgrounds in working with retreat participants. He was with the OPP for 20 years. She is a former member of the Ottawa Police Force.
The program supplements any therapy for PTSD which participants may already be undergoing.
“We provide an educational component,” Murray explained. “This includes coping strategies and techniques to reduce symptoms. We emphasize that first responders need to know that they are not alone, that others understand what they are feeling, what they have experienced.”
After a stay of five days and four nights, participants leave the retreat with a 90 day follow up plan, and strong encouragement to keep up contact with the people they have met in their session.
“Peer support allows participants to help each other through,” said Murray, “and by doing that, they help themselves.”
The program particularly reaches out to volunteer firefighters.
“Many community volunteers, just because they are volunteers, may not have the access to support services. Yet they must confront the same crisis situations as their professional counterparts. Again, we offer support,” Murray said.
There is a strong, caring group of people behind First Responders United.
Jim Grant, the retreat chaplain, was a firefighter and later a fire chief during his 50 years with the Edwardsburgh-Cardinal department. Glenn Merkley, who provides technical support, was also a firefighter for 10 years.
Supporting the entire project is the St. John’s United congregation who believes in the long term benefits of such a special program and helped to bring it to realization as part of the Outreach Ministry of the church.
“The original idea for First Responders came from conversations with Rev. Ed,” explained Jim Grant. “We thought we could do something with our facilities here at St. John’s. We thought we could create a gym, and change 12 classrooms into sleeping accommodations and a meditation room and install new washrooms.”
In August of 2017, the idea of the First Responders United program was brought to the St. John’s Church council where it was “enthusiastically received and approved.”
Although the retreat is part of St. John’s United Church, First Responders United is not linked to any one faith. Every faith, or no faith, all are welcome through its doors.
With a loan of $70,000 from the Trustees, renovations to the church began. The sleeping quarters, showers, meditation room and fully accessible washrooms were all completed in time for First Responders United to welcome its first group of retreat participants on February 26.
Another three retreats are planned by June, 2018.
Financial support for the project has come from many individuals, corporations and organizations.
Because of the uniqueness of the program, it has drawn interest from the Quebec border to Trenton.
Funding donations have come from area fire departments, from the Montreal-Ottawa Synod of the United Church of Canada and from the United Church Foundation.
The municipality of South Dundas has officially pledged $2,500 as a donation to the program. “We need to support this,” said councillor Bill Ewing, himself a former volunteer firefighter. “We definitely could have used this years ago.”
There is a cost to take the week long program, Murray explained, but most of that cost could be covered by private insurance through the participants’ work organization. The retreat is also offered to first responders who may be currently not active or retired. “But if there was ever a first responder who couldn’t afford our program, he or she could come for free,” Murray said.
“Our long term goal is to provide a resource for the first responders community where they can find affordable, effective, scientifically based treatment for PTSD,” Rev. Dr. Murray said.
“We feel very good about what we are doing,” added Jim Grant. “This is our way of meeting the needs of people who may not have other resources.”
First Responders United, based in Cardinal, can be reached through its website.