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Ohana Koa Luau to help fund retreat for first responders

The Bakersfield Californian - 8/24/2022

Aug. 24—First responders are often the ones providing a sense of security for those in the midst of disaster, but for those who put on a brave face for people in need, who looks out for them? Public Safety Professionals Retreat offers a twice-annual local retreat for first responders.

Public Safety Professionals Retreat, which is also called PSPR or ProSPeR, invites emergency responders on a six-day intensive outpatient retreat that offers them new coping skills intended to improve their personal and professional relationships as well as their quality of life.

On Saturday, it is holding the first-ever Ohana Koa Luau (Family of Warriors) fundraiser to cover guest scholarships and retreat materials.

Sunny Mueller, ProSPeR's clinical director, said the nonprofit started as a Rotary Club community service project targeted at military veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Realizing this would duplicate existing efforts by Veterans Affairs, the focus turned to another at-risk group: first responders. Much like veterans, those serving in law enforcement, fire and emergency services often don't realize the weight of their work and the ripple effects it can have, Mueller said.

"Whatever coping skills they have now probably aren't working," Mueller said of retreat guests. "They're struggling professionally or at home and they need some help."

"Our goal is to introduce them to new techniques new skills that maybe they have never thought about before."

Retreats are offered in the spring and fall (the next is Oct. 23-28), held at a working cattle ranch in the mountains of Kern County. Along with privacy, the location offers participants an escape from their normal routine.

That is enhanced by activities that include yoga, archery, art therapy and more.

Mueller said the board studied two other established retreats in the U.S. for shaping the itinerary: "Everything we do has science behind it. Any activities, learning components or experiential things we do at retreat are researched before we do them. If we decide to paint rocks, we're not just going to 'paint rocks.' We've done a lot of research into treatments and effectiveness."

Each retreat is limited to six guests, who are each matched with a peer, someone who has had similar experiences and offers a sense of security. Two chaplains also attend each retreat.

Someone is up at all hours in case any guest is awake and wants to talk or take a walk.

"Keeping it small allows us to give the one-on-one attention and do things we wouldn't be able to do in a large group," Mueller said.

With sessions including a discussion of grief and loss, guests can feel more comfortable sharing their experiences than in a larger group where they may feel distrustful.

"People are sharing very personal experiences. ... These things are very personal, very intimate and should be treated with respect."

Although there are no official therapy sessions at the retreat, Mueller said one benefit is offering guests an introduction to remove some of the mystery (or stigma).

"A clinician talks to them to give them a feel for what therapy feels like. That it's not someone picking your brain while you're on a couch."

Mueller said past guests have included firefighters who fought the Erskine Fire in 2016 and those who have faced an officer-involved shooting. ProSPeR's goal is to provide guests, regardless of their previous experience, with the tools to cope and to make the best decisions for themselves and their families.

"While we're there for the week, we're planting the seeds for health. We want them to walk away with a garden starting to grow."

Mueller said it costs about $3,000 per guest for each retreat and ProSPeR is constantly raising funds to ensure no one is denied based on their ability to pay.

Much of the fundraising has been through donations and sponsorships as well as barbecue events.

Saturday's Ohana Koa Luau has been a couple of years in the making, after the board bounced around a casino night idea that became a luau.

Attendees are encouraged to wear "island attire" and there is a contest for the "loudest" Hawaiian shirt.

Dinner will include tri-tip and teriyaki chicken, bacon-wrapped asparagus, Hawaiian salad and pineapple upside-down cake.

Professional Polynesian dancers will perform, and there will be music and dancing.

VIPs, who get in one hour early, will have first dibs on the silent auction. Items include artisan jewelry, a three-day, two-night stay at Rankin Ranch with horseback riding and "all kinds of goodies," and a Kern Valley-themed basket that includes a full day of river rafting with Kern River Outfitters, two nights at the Piazza's Pine Cone Inn, a gift card for Kern River Brewing and gift certificate for Riverstone wellness classes.

Based on swift ticket sales, Mueller anticipates that this luau will become an annual event.

"We're really looking forward to it. There's a lot of heart and soul going into this. Come out and support us and support our first responders to continue in their job or retire well."

Stefani Dias can be reached at 661-395-7488. Follow her on Twitter at @realstefanidias.


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