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Former Santa Rosa paramedic aims for full-time center to help first responders through trauma

A burly man with a mop of blonde hair and a serious expression faced two rows of off-duty firefighters, police officers, paramedics and soldiers gathered in the carriage house of a Napa County vineyard.

Then he stretched his rear leg back, bent his front knee, reached both arms upward and barked, “Warrior pose!”

“Warrior pose!” responded the pupils in a military cadence, as they mimicked his stance.

The sight is a far cry from the usually meditative, tranquil, spandex-laden experience of American yoga.

It’s called “tactical yoga,” and it’s among a roster of therapeutic activities First Responder Resiliency teaches in its wellness conferences like this one at Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena.

Since its inception in 2018, First Responder Resiliency says it has held hundreds of these events and trained nearly 6,000 first responders in mindfulness, leadership, addiction recovery, suicide awareness, stress reduction, nutrition and other wellness topics.

Now, the Santa Rosa-based organization hopes to expand its program beyond these three-day workshops to a full-time, dedicated treatment center in Sonoma County.

The center will address the ever-mounting health crises in the public safety community, said First Responder Resiliency Founder Sue Farren.

“We put on our uniform and we pretend that we’ve got no problems,” said Farren, a former paramedic in several Bay Area agencies. “But cancer, strokes, heart attacks, substance abuse, sleep deprivation, suicide — we’re dying out here.”

Many recent studies show that emergency response personnel are at increased risk of mental and physical health problems such as addiction, depression, post traumatic stress disorder and cancer. Police officers and firefighters, for example, are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty, according to research compiled by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

And as the emergencies get bigger — record-breaking wildland blazes, political unrest, a global pandemic — the well-being of those on the front lines becomes more dire.

Currently, little occupies the 17.75-acre former golf course Farren recently purchased in Cotati for the center. But she has a plan — for classrooms, gardens, meditation sanctuaries, art studios, and spaces for group, individual and even equine therapy — that she is now pitching to businesses and philanthropists in the area for financial support.

"What better place to do it but here in Sonoma County,“ said county Supervisor David Rabbitt, whose district includes the property.

Rabbitt, whose son is a firefighter, said he made a personal donation to the organization.

The First Responder Resiliency Center will be one-of-a-kind in multiple ways, Farren said. For one, the approach is preventative.

“Right now, there’s no place for us to go unless it’s a rehab center,” she said.

With the help of philanthropy and grants, Farren envisions the facility to be a free resource, for drop-ins and long-term services alike.

The center is also unique, Farren continued, because everything it will offer will be designed and provided by people who know firsthand how traumatizing emergency response can be.

Most of her staff are former first responders whose lived experiences give them the cultural competence and credibility to help others beat back their troubles.

“These will be people that understand the work that they do,” she said. “We want people to feel safe with their own tribes.”

Farren said it was her own experience that led her to launch First Responder Resiliency.

Born and raised in Sonoma, Farren was riding on ambulances as a volunteer by the time she was 18. She then made a 30-year career out of it, serving as a paramedic in Santa Rosa, Oakland and elsewhere.

As a first responder, she dealt with the gruesome and the macabre; as a mother and wife, she would shed her uniform when she returned home, but the day’s experiences stayed with her.

The trauma she experienced on the job eventually caught up with her, contributing to a divorce and major health issues that forced her into early retirement.

She later beat her cancer diagnosis, although doctors initially gave her a year to live.

By the time she was 53, Farren said, “I’ve gone through a divorce, a terminal diagnosis, a major surgery ... and I end up living in my trailer and despondent.”

The other instructors with the organization have similar stories of struggling with illness, addiction, suicide, or losing peers far too young to those things.

“I watched guys retire out. I had friends take their lives,” said Ron Shull, who retired from the Santa Rosa Fire Department in 2018.

Tod Ceruti, the brawny veteran-turned-yogi teaching tactical yoga, said he lost a brother-in-arms to suicide.

“I could have gone down the same path,” Ceruti said, but — before that happened— he fortunately discovered the cathartic power of yoga. “If it’ll work for me, it’ll work for somebody else.”

You can reach Staff Writer Emily Wilder at 707-521-5337 or emily.wilder@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @vv1lder.

Emily Wilder

Criminal justice and public safety, The Press Democrat  

Criminal justice is one of the most stirring and consequential systems, both in the North Bay and nationwide. Crime, policing, prosecution and incarceration have ripples that reach many parts of our lives, and these issues are under increasingly powerful microscopes. My goal is to uncover untold stories and understand the unique impacts of criminal justice and public safety on Sonoma County.

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