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Valor Station: A struggle against odds to open treatment facility for first responders

The Georgia facility would include treatment from medical detox through recovery along with complete mental health services

Valor Station L Front.jpg

Valor Station would be open to first responders in need from all over the country.

Photo/Cliff Richards

Firefighters deal with tragedy and stress as a natural part of their lives. Dealing with a global pandemic in addition to all that they encounter normally just adds to the pressure and anxiety of the job.

Stress and trauma can cause many different outcomes for individuals. Some people seem to do all right, but others struggle and may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other conditions. Some firefighters and first responders develop substance abuse disorders and addictions.

While there are excellent programs that exist to support first responders through mental health crises, few if any facilities provide full-service medical and mental health support specifically for firefighters and other first responders suffering from substance abuse disorders as well as mental health issues.

Cliff Richards – executive director of the Hale Foundation in Augusta, Georgia – would like to change that reality with the creation of a full-service residential center for first responders that would provide treatment from medical detox through recovery along with complete mental health services.

Hale Foundation origins – and new opportunities

The Hale Foundation was started in Augusta in 1990 to serve men who are dealing with substance abuse recovery post-detox. The foundation supports a residential facility in Augusta serving 58 men and operates on the 12-step model for recovery.

In 2017, an abandoned convent was donated to the foundation. As directors considered what to do with the property, which includes full living quarters, a chapel and acreage, Richards was approached by a friend, Patrick Cullinan, who worked for the Southeast States Police Benevolent Association. Cullinan pointed out that there were currently no treatment facilities exclusively dedicated to substance abuse and mental health issues for first responders. He suggested that the newly donated property might become a prototype facility for this community.

The Hale Foundation was fully onboard with this idea and began moving ahead with a center on the property, which they called Valor Station. Unlike current foundation programs, Valor Station would serve both men and women with space for up to 40 residents and focus exclusively on the needs of first responders – police, fire, EMS, dispatch and corrections officers. They drew up plans for remodeling existing buildings and renovating the grounds to meet the new demands. They assembled a team of medical and mental health professionals to staff the new program.

Then they encountered a roadblock.

Pushing ahead despite resistance

The 20-acre property is located adjacent to a neighborhood. And some of those neighbors have been very vocal that they don’t want a treatment facility of any kind near their homes, even one that is dedicated to first responders. This opposition has stalled the zoning process necessary to begin work on the new facility.

“It doesn’t quite make sense to me,” Richards said. “They can call 911 one day and have a guy come out and save their life, but he can’t go next door to get help.”

A state statute requires a six-month wait between submission for a medical facility and a decision from planning and zoning. The next meeting will take place in June.

“In the event they say no, we still have the option of going before the county commission, because that’s the ultimate decision maker,” Richards explained. He feels that support from the commissioners is a good possibility, but if the project does not get approval at that stage, the foundation will continue to push ahead, even considering legal action.

Richards is so passionate about the new facility because of the tremendous need that exists for such treatment: “We’ve got states now that are committed to sending their people to us if we can get this thing up and running. The response has been overwhelming. But we can’t move forward until we get the proper zoning.”

One thing that would make Valor Station unique is that a full medical component will be included, so onsite detox will be available. Complete mental health services will be part of the program, too.

Richards expects that insurance will support residential treatment. The foundation will also fundraise to create a financial pool to backfill any insurance gaps. One fundraising option will be having individuals and families sponsor one of the residential rooms at the center in honor of a loved one. The room would then be named for that first responder.

Valor Station would be open to first responders in need from all over the country. They have already had interested calls from South Carolina and New York.

“It could be overwhelming,” Richards admitted. “But our goal is to be the model. Then we can go into other areas of the country and have multiple locations.”

The proposed program will address substance abuse and addiction but also PTSD, anger management, domestic problems, depression and other mental health challenges.

One man’s treatment story

Richards told a story about a firefighter who developed PTSD after responding to a child drowning. After a 20-year career, the man ended up losing his job and marriage and was homeless on the streets of Augusta, contemplating suicide. He had called into a radio show with his story, which Richards heard, prompting him to go about trying to find him. Weeks later, Richards and Cullinan found the man and he told them his story, including the trauma he experienced from the catalyst event of the drowning. They were able to get him help through the foundation where he is now sober and recovering.

“That told me that there’s really a need out there,” Richards said. “We need to make this thing happen.”

Valor Station has a Facebook group of supporters that provides current information about the status of the project.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.