First responders nationwide deal with traumatic and stress-inducing experiences nearly every day. They’re there to help others, sometimes even at a great cost to their own mental well-being. To begin to ease that burden, two Pittsburgh-based mental health service agencies are offering free services to first responders in Western Pennsylvania.
Village Center for Holistic Therapy, located in Pittsburgh’s West End and Shaler, and Awaken Pittsburgh, located inside the Shambhala Meditation Center in Highland Park, worked together to create the Mindful Connections for Public Safety program after receiving a grant from the Staunton Farm Foundation in 2020.
“As a therapist, this was a passion project of mine,” says Kristy Weidner, co-owner of the Village Center for Holistic Therapy. “I really wanted to be in the community doing first responder work.”
The Mindful Connections for Public Safety program is available to firefighters, law enforcement, EMTs, medical examiners, 911 dispatchers, and any other public safety personnel. The course includes nine 90-minute sessions and a half-day retreat at the end. Each session serves a maximum of 25 people.
“The trauma that happens to them, you can’t prevent it,” says Weidner, “But there are tools out there that can help.”
The first course ran on a hybrid model, says Stephanie Romero, founder and executive director of Awaken Pittsburgh, with some classes meeting in person at the inJOY Meditation Studio in Shaler, and some meeting virtually.
In the future, Romero says she hopes to run the program wherever there is a need. Eventually, Romero and Weidner say they hope to work directly with local police, fire and EMS departments to offer their services to groups.
“We’re in it for the long haul,” says Romero. “We want to serve this population. We see the need.”
Awaken Pittsburgh and the Village Center have been able to extend the program after receiving $75,000 from the Mary Hillman Jennings Foundation, which is part of the Hillman Family Foundations. They will receive another $70,000 at the end of this year.
Awaken Pittsburgh, which is a nonprofit, also offers donation-based, pay-what-you-can programming for anyone interested in mental health services.
The Mindful Connections for Public Safety program is more focused on holistic mental well-being practices like yoga and meditation, rather than a diagnosis-based model, says Weidner. They teach skills that anyone can use to achieve a happier and more balanced life, says Romero.
“When you meditate, you get still,” says Romero. “Stuff might come up. It’s going to come up. And that’s part of healing.”
The first free nine-week course of meditation and mindfulness sessions concluded on May 23. The second round of classes will begin in the fall. For more information, visit Awaken Pittsburgh.