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New wellness activities for firefighters, police officers launch in Huntington

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Police officers and firefighters in the City of Huntington now have new outlets for dealing with stress from their jobs to ward off potential “compassion fatigue.”

This month, several self-care activities developed to support first responders have launched as part of an early phase of a larger wellness effort being paid for with grant funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies.

“They recognize that there are lot more stresses placed on first responders — whether it’s the opioid epidemic or, perhaps, it could be a school shooting,” explained Cathy Burns, Huntington city manager.

“In any type of traumatic event, what we find is is that most first responders are not given healthy, appropriate ways to deal with that stress.”

Officials in Huntington are attempting to change that by embedding certified mental health professionals within the Huntington Police Department and Huntington Fire Department providing, among other things, resiliency and mindfulness training.

Huntington is unique in such efforts which were birthed out of a crisis.

“Whenever the calls started increasing with the opioid epidemic, there was really, truly a need that was discovered,” said Sharon Pell, Bloomberg grant facilitator and Huntington Business Services advocate.

“We have our first responders out there responding to all of these increased calls and we’re taking care of the people within the community, but who’s taking care of the first responders?”

That care for the first responders and their families is now being coordinated out of office space at the Huntington Police Department.

“Our goal is to improve their wellness and their quality of life,” said Amy Berner, the new program manager who works there.

A total of $1 million in grant funding for the program comes from the 2018 Bloomberg Philanthropies U.S. Mayors Challenge whose winners were announced last October.

The grant money covers three years.

Throughout the implementation process, “We’ve been looking at what does success look like in 2021,” Pell said.

During the past several months, a contract, budget and delivery plan were developed in coordination with Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Additionally, a charity coach has been working with Huntington on a monthly basis and baseline data has been gathered.

With burnout an issue, “We just want to give them (first responders) the tools and the resources that they need to recharge their batteries,” Berner said.

“The yoga, the pottery, the ballroom dancing (now available) are all things that we’ve heard in focus groups that they would interested in doing. We’re going to be trying a lot of new and different things to see if they and their families will be interested in them also.”

The Huntington Police Department will eventually house a comprehensive wellness center that’s currently in development and will likely involve a later fundraising campaign.

Along with the wellness center, a full-time wellness coordinator will be hired. Currently, a part-time person is working with the first responders.

“Our goal is to improve their wellness and their quality of life,” Berner said.

The model for first responder care being developed in Huntington could eventually be rolled out to other communities across the United States.

“That’s the promise of the Mayors Challenge — that, if we give communities a boost, they will be able to implement bold ideas and tackle big problems,” former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg previously said of the grant awards.

Huntington was one of nine cities selected from more than 300 applications in a competition that challenged city leaders to try new ways to address some of their toughest challenges.

Other winning cities included Denver, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.

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