In 2011, then Rotary District 5240 Governor, Deepa Willingham, spoke with a group of Rotary Clubs from Bakersfield, in Kern County, one of the four central California counties (along with Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Ventura) that comprise the district. As a recently retired hospital administrator in Santa Barbara, Deepa envisioned the need for a facility to help military veterans and others with symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  She envisioned Kern County as a viable location for a pilot project that could be readily replicated by other Rotary Districts throughout the United States and beyond.  Deepa requested a feasibility study to be conducted to determine the viability of her vision, and then provided the project with $5,000.00 from District 5240 funds for that specific purpose.

Although her initial vision was to assist military veterans, it quickly expanded to include First Responders as their mental health supports were identified as lacking.  During this period, it became evident that there were too few support programs for First Responders, specifically, those which focused on prevention and early intervention.  At the same time, a new Veterans' Center was constructed in Bakersfield and staffed to address, among other needs, those of PTSD in the military.  It became evident that the feasibility study needed to focus on First Responders alone.  However, the decision to focus on the needs of First Responders exclusively was not made lightly. 

As part of the feasibility study, our team of Rotarians from most clubs within the community worked diligently with local veterans' organizations to understand the needs and supports available.  In conjunction with the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), the team sponsored a series of well-attended programs at a local mental health hospital.  Speakers from both the military and first responder communities addressed PTSD issues from their unique perspectives.  During this process, it became very clear that we were working with two distinct cultures.  Although there were similarities within the military and first responder cultures, conversely there were many differences that presented themselves.  Language was similar, but general structure of both differed enough to be noted.  Resources for assistance were found to be very different as well and tilted the scale of need toward First Responders.  With the exception of Employee Assistance Programs, or EAPs, unless a First Responder happened to be a military veteran, little or no specific, dedicated clinical assistance was available.  Even so, information from First Responder’s personal narratives indicate that EAPs are not utilized due to stigma and cultural structure.  It was evident that First Responders were more in need due to less professional support, and so, with mutual understanding and respect, the project turned from veterans to focus solely on First Responders.

By "First Responders," we are referring to emergency response professionals, e.g., law enforcement officers (city police and county deputy sheriffs), city and county fire fighters, emergency medical technicians (EMTs), paramedics, dispatchers, and others who find themselves on the front lines of public safety.  In these professions, many are involved in "critical incidents” as an accepted part of the job.  “Critical incidents,” as defined by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reads:  A highly stressful situation.  Simply put, a critical incident is a traumatic event (or perceived life-threatening experience) that has sufficient power to overwhelm an individual's ability to cope.  Normal physical and psychological responses occur, which place considerable pressure upon that person.

As a result of the feasibility study, the need for an intensive program for First Responders whose lives have been impacted by their work experiences was (and is) conclusive.  Our vision was to create a retreat that will provide an educational and healing experience to help current and retired First Responders recognize the signs and symptoms of work related stress, provide support, teach new skills, and help manage symptoms that may be interfering with their jobs and personal lives.

It was initially determined by the study that this facility should be modeled after an established program for First Responders in northern California, the West Coast Post-Trauma Retreat, or WCPR.  The West Coast Post-Trauma Retreat is one of only two such programs currently operating in the United States that focuses on First Responder stress, trauma, PTSD, and suicidality.  The overriding goal (or mission) of this Community Service Project is to enable First Responders to participate in this program and to significantly benefit from the experience by resuming the profession they love, restoring their personal relationships, and avoiding even the thought of suicide.

Needless to say, there are other beneficial outcomes of prevention and early intervention for people suffering with residual symptoms of trauma. The use of drugs and alcohol to numb feelings that are too difficult to bear can be a problem for some First Responders who have experienced repetitive traumas on the job.  Other symptoms that are difficult to manage can include flashbacks, difficulty sleeping, and working all the time to distract from harmful thoughts.  With support, skills, and psychoeducation, these issues can be managed, and for the most part minimized.

According to mental health authorities, PTSD statistics among First Responders are not 100% accurate due to a variety of valid reasons.  Symptoms of PTSD vary, and no one person will experience trauma the same way due to individual life experiences and personal resilience.  A person’s worldview also dictates what constitutes a trauma to each individual and seems to be "population specific."  For example, does a firefighter fear for his life more or less than a police officer?  Research has shown that PTSD develops more frequently in those who experience multiple traumas. This seems to be the only correlation between PTSD and First Responders in that they are, by the very nature of their occupations, exposed to multiple traumatic experiences and critical incidents throughout their careers.

Stigma and denial are also issues that tend to distort PTSD research statistics.  This may be due to the well-documented fear of labeling and ridicule, especially within the “hero” professions, that prevent sufferers to seek help.  It is this low level of help-seeking behaviors in First Responder cultures that we must all realize is part of the accepted view that First Responders are infallible and perpetually strong in all aspects.  It is our belief that this is a community problem of perception that must be changed—the humans behind the badge deserve better.

Based on the above history of our Community Service Project within our Rotary District, plus our wonderful counsel from the staff of the West Coast Post-Trauma Retreat in northern California, our District Governor's vision became abundantly clear.  We needed to replicate the week-long retreat model effectively employed by WCPR, using their history of success as a template for our project.  We needed to engage local mental health clinicians who understand the needs, and very importantly, the culture of First Responders.  We also needed to note the distinct differences between law enforcement, firefighting, and emergency medical care organization as each has its’ own jargon, environments, and expectations.    To the credit of most agencies, counsel is now provided in the wake of most, if not all, critical incidents, and most agencies participate in Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) in order to debrief after a critical incident.  However, the need for preventative support and early intervention was, and is, still clear.  First Responders typically do not seek help until there is a major crisis in their personal or professional lives.  If there was a program that could intervene and help with support, education, and provide peers to talk to, perhaps the problems would not get to a critical stage.  The more we talked to First Responders, the need for a week-long retreat became increasingly evident as we closed our feasibility study and moved ahead with what would become known as Rotary House Retreat.  



Motto:  Service Above Self

For more than 110 years, Rotary members have been addressing challenges around the world.  Grassroots at the core, Rotary links 1.2 million members to form an organization of international scope.  It started with the vision of one man—Paul Harris.  The Chicago attorney formed the Rotary Club of Chicago on 23 February 1905, so professionals with diverse backgrounds could exchange ideas, form meaningful, lifelong friendships, and give back to their communities. Rotary’s name came from the group’s early practice of rotating meetings among the offices of its members.

Rotary unites leaders from continents, cultures and occupations to exchange ideas and take action to meet the needs of communities around the world. Rotary’s more than 34,000 clubs undertake service initiatives to overcome challenges facing their local communities and partner with clubs from around the world to help improve international communities. 


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