The Whidbey CareNet Story

A community cares for its own

There’s a palpable sense of community on South Whidbey Island. You know your neighbors and learn the hard way that you’d better keep relational fences mended, because if you don’t, you’ll invariably run into the people you’re most trying to avoid at the post office or on the ferry. When tragedy strikes, the community rallies, as it did in early November, 2011, around the families of three young men, aged 19, 20, and 22, who died in an accident. And a fourth, 18,  who is spending more than five years in jail for killing three of her best friends while driving under the influence.

Zippy Leonard
Zippy Leonard

Six weeks later, on a windy Christmas day, a tree broke off and landed on the vehicle of a family as it passed underneath, killing the youngest child, 9-year-old Zippy. A few days later, Leckey, a 56-year-old volunteer firefighter/EMT who responded to the call, stopped by the South Whidbey Commons, the nonprofit where I then worked. As is the case for so many emergency responders serving in rural areas, Leckey knew Zippy. He’d bandaged her knee while on duty at the local Soup Box Derby the year before and was now returning from her house, where he and other members of the community feathered the nest for Zippy’s father, who was returning from the hospital with a broken neck. As was the case with the earlier accident, members of the community rallied around Zippy’s family. But alone at the Commons, Leckey burst into tears.

“Who,” I wondered, “is rallying around these emergency responders?”

I organized our first-ever community grief counseling event at the Commons, but neither it nor a critical incident stress debriefing—the first Leckey had experienced in 15 years of service—relieved his pain.

I wanted to do something to ease the grief of emergency responders like Leckey, but all I could offer was a tool I’d created to help people put their feelings into words. Then one day, while sitting at the kitchen table, I thought, “I can’t help responders directly, but I can build a website and ask others to help.” I did exactly that in January of 2012, and within three weeks, 25 people signed up to offer free counseling, massage therapy, naturopathic and chiropractic care, and other services to emergency responders. Whidbey CareNet providers aren’t trained to put out fires and administer CPR, but they’re trained to relieve emotional and physical pain, and they support their community by caring for its emergency responders.

Seventy percent of firefighters in the United States are volunteers who have day-job stress and home-life stress like everybody else. But unlike the volunteers at the local food bank or soup kitchen, volunteer firefighters and EMTs expose themselves to trauma-related conditions such as PTSD through their service. That’s too high a price to pay, and Whidbey CareNet providers work to prevent that. In addition to the care providers offer, we’re developing a training program that will help emergency responders and their loved ones relieve ongoing stress and trauma, so they can prevent conditions such as PTSD.

Fourteen months after Whidbey CareNet was founded, 10-year-old Rhianna died. I received an email message from South Whidbey Fire/EMS Chief Rusty Palmer telling me to alert Whidbey CareNet providers, because he was sending responders their way. And that’s when I realized that Whidbey CareNet was working. Our community rallied in support of Rhianna’s family, just as it had when Zippy died. But this time, a community of caregivers also rallied around its emergency responders.

By Petra Martin,  founder of Whidbey CareNet

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