In 2011, then Rotary District 5240 Governor Deepa Willingham spoke with a group of Rotary Clubs from Bakersfield, 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 proposed Kern County as a practical location for a pilot Community Service 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, during the feasibility study it quickly became evident that another community of service professionals, First Responders, had little to no mental health support programs available, specifically, those which focused on prevention and early intervention. The decision was not made lightly, but it became clear that the feasibility study needed to focus on First Responders alone.
The term "First Responders," refers 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.
Because of the feasibility study, the need for an intensive, prevention and early-intervention program for First Responders whose lives have been impacted by the critical incidents as a part of their work experiences was (and is) conclusive. Our vision was to create a retreat that would 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. By addressing issues such as drug/alcohol use, isolating, sleep disturbances, and other stress-related symptoms when they initially manifest, interventions may prevent these symptoms from becoming unmanageable and life-threatening.
The overriding mission of the Community Service Project was 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 thoughts of suicide.
Stigma and denial are issues that tend to dissuade First Responders from seeking mental health assistance. This may be due to the well-documented fear of labeling and ridicule, especially within the “hero” professions, that prevent sufferers to seek help. Choice of profession does not make one infallible. Our program embraced the humanity of First Responders and offered innovative skills training and psychoeducation throughout the retreat.
Based on the above history of our Community Service Project within our Rotary District, our wonderful counsel from those in the field of First Responder support, and many discussions with local professional mental health clinicians and First Responders themselves, our District Governor's vision became a reality in what was previously known as Rotary House Retreat.
In early 2019, Rotary House Retreat began a rather detailed and extensive process of administrative changes to solidify and clarify the mission, vision, and goals of the organization. In doing so, the Public Safety Professionals Retreat, ProSPeR, or PSPR has been established. ProSPeR is awaiting finalization of its non-profit 501c3 status and has implemented new leadership on the governing board which has been working diligently to provide the structure necessary for current and future growth. The Public Safety Professionals Retreat continues to provide specialized services and retreat opportunities to all first responders who may be struggling with stress- and trauma-related symptoms associated with public safety professions.
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