Beyond ‘Fun’: 911 At Ease International Offers Community Chance to Save Lives
The annual Fun with the Force is more than just another fundraiser. It is an opportunity to support the men and women who risk their lives for the communities they serve every day. Money raised at this year’s event goes directly to the rapidly expanding 911 At Ease International (911 AEI), a nonprofit that offers free, professional, confidential, local, trauma-informed counseling and therapy to first responders and their families.
Chairman and CEO of The Armand Hammer Foundation and the Hammer International Foundation Michael Hammer and retired Santa Barbara Police Sgt. Mike McGrew co-founded the program in 2014, after recognizing a dire need for the lifesaving services.
“The emotional injuries incurred in service are invisible, but no less real and often more damaging than physical trauma. As a result, first responders suffer from staggering rates of alcoholism, divorce, and suicide,” explained McGrew. “Worse, services offered through employers are frequently riddled with red tape and tempts those looking for help to look over their shoulders instead. The need for independent professional trauma-informed counseling for those on the front lines is evident.”
The nonprofit could not have come at a better time, according to San Luis Obispo Police Captain Brian Amoroso.
“We went through a summer and fall of protest, and an election cycle that was a very negative time in law enforcement, probably the worst time I’ve seen in my 20 years of working,” Amoroso said.
Amoroso was serving as the interim chief of his department last year, when the unthinkable happened. Detectives for the San Luis Obispo Police Department, including 37-year-old Luca Benedetti, were serving a search warrant at an apartment, when the suspect opened fire.
“When they attempted to make contact at the apartment, the suspect ambushed them and shot Detective Benedetti. It killed him instantly in the doorway,” Amoroso said. “Even though we train for this, it still never prepares you when one of your officers is shot and killed.”
The tragedy came on the heels of another officer-involved shooting in Paso Robles, in which two other law enforcement officers were shot, but survived. Amoroso knew his agency needed outside help to cope with the back-to-back incidents.
“I saw the grief and pain on my officers’ faces, and thought, ‘How do I support them and how do we even come back to work and handle shifts the next day?’”
Fortunately for Amoroso, McGrew had visited the San Luis Obispo Police Department earlier in the year and extended the 911 AEI’s services as part of an effort to expand the program.
The goal of the At Ease program is to encourage the men and women who often serve selflessly, to also take care of themselves.
“When difficult times and circumstances affect our lives and our neighborhoods through traumatic critical incidents, personal threats, or natural disasters, the spirit of our first responders never wavers and sometimes they don’t know if they will make it home,” said Hammer.
“Supporting At Ease gets us to think past ourselves and begin to help the people who risk their lives for us every day.”
After the deadly shooting in San Luis Obispo, employees from every part of Amoroso’s agency, from dispatchers to officers who were on the scene, had the opportunity to see a counselor, confidentially and free of charge, through 911 AEI.
“That’s the beauty of the program. There’s a real stigma in law enforcement, of being weak,” Amoroso stated. “In our career, you need to have a mechanism for coping with stress, and At Ease provides a lot of that. It’s an available tool for our people.”
911 AEI’s counselors and therapists are thoroughly vetted through the program and specifically understand the culture and lifestyle surrounding first responder professions.
“They don’t have to get just any therapist that their insurance company pays for,” said Jim Nigro, board director of 911 AEI. “Our people are all specialized and know what the first responders need.”
Since its inception, 911 At Ease International has grown, from serving the local Santa Barbara and surrounding communities, to agencies across the country, and around the world.
“Everyone that hears about it wants it, and that’s why it’s been travelling across the country,” Nigro said. “It keeps our first responders strong. These are people we depend on and when we need them.”
In addition to first responders, 911 AEI serves emergency hospital personnel, dispatchers, district attorney staff members, life flight personnel, and other frontline emergency professions and their family members in the region where a chapter is located.
“Chapters are stewarded by local team members and volunteers,” McGrew explained.
In addition to counseling, the nonprofit provides peer-to-peer support, chaplaincy, referral services, and critical incident response.
Shortly after establishing a 911 AEI chapter in Kern County, the local Sheriff’s Department lost a member of its team. Deputy Phillip Campas was shot and killed while responding to a call of a gunman in a home in Wasco, California. In addition to his work with the Kern County Sheriff’s Department, Campas served in the U.S. Marines and also as a recruit training instructor.
911 AEI personnel, including therapy dog, Donuts, responded immediately to offer support, not only to employees of the Kern County Sheriff’s Department, but also to the academy trainees.
“Their instructor had been killed the day before, and they still had to do academy to become officers,” explained Christine Trunick, 911 AEI Communications and Development Director. “They had a week and a half left in the academy, and many expected them to quit, but At Ease showed them they have support now and for the rest of their career. They did not have anyone drop out of the academy.”
This year’s Fun with the Force event includes a special tribute to Campas, Benedetti, and other fallen officers who died in the line of duty in the past year. The event also features guest speakers who have used and have seen the impacts of the 911 AEI program, interactive displays from law enforcement agencies across the Tri-Counties, and food and wine from vendors across Santa Barbara.
“It’s really a collaborative event to give our community an opportunity to honor some of our local heroes,” Trunick said. Following a live auction and paddle raise, the event will wrap up with entertainment by the Boogie Nights Band. “Bring your dancing shoes. It’s going to be a lot of fun!” Trunick added.
Pat and Ursula Nesbitt will host the event at their Bella Vista Ranch Estate. Ursula Nesbitt also serves as a director on the 911 AEI Board.
“First responders are the first on the scene to face challenging, dangerous, and draining situations. They are also the first to reach out to disaster survivors and provide emotional and physical support. These duties, which are essential to the entire community, are strenuous to first responders, putting them at an increased risk of trauma which you can only imagine carries into their daily lives and is brought home with them even after work hours,” Nesbitt said.
“At Ease provides confidential trauma-informed professional counseling and is readily available to all first responders and their families, which has saved lives and marriages and keeps our first responders strong. It may sound cliché, but it’s true: When our first responders are strong and supported, our communities are strong.”
Along with 911 AEI, the event is co-sponsored by the Santa Barbara Police Foundation, which provides support for injured, disabled, or catastrophically ill police officers or employees of the Santa Barbara Police Department and their families. The SBPF supported the At Ease program until 911 AEI became its own 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
The event will be held Sunday, October 3, from 3 pm to 9 pm. 911 AEI offers a chance to support local law enforcement, for those who cannot attend the event.
“Maybe you are not ready to come to events yet, or you can’t make this event, but you can still purchase a ticket and donate it back to be used by a first responder and their spouse,” explained Trunick.
For more information or to purchase tickets, go to https://911aei.org/fun-with-the-force-tickets or call Christine Trunick at (805) 245-4030.