GRAND CHUTE, Wis. (WFRV) – First responders have a duty to help others, but sometimes they need a little help of their own.
For the Grand Chute Fire Department, that is where Kelly Wheeler comes in, a professional counselor and trauma therapist working with firefighters.
She says, “Historically, we just thought they are going to be okay, they’ll be fine, we don’t need to check on them, and that was across the board. It’s really, in my opinion, it’s not if a job like this affects you but it’s when and in what way. I believe it’s very important as a provider to have a relationship with departments so that you can be there and understand the agency.”
Not only does Wheeler spend time with the squad at the station or in private. She also tags along when they go out on calls.
Assistant Chief Kelly Hanink says Wheeler’s presence has made a major impact on the department.
“I think everybody’s more comfortable just talking about mental health in general. Even if we’re not talking about what Kelly [Wheeler] is doing, they are just more comfortable talking with each other about how they’re feeling,” Hanink says.
It was Lieutenant Wade Thorson’s idea to bring Wheeler in nearly 4 years ago.
He says, “When she first came in, there was a little bit of hesitancy with our members, but now it feels like she’s part of the family. There are things that a lot of us are not comfortable talking about to each other or maybe even with family members, but she is there as somebody who is neutral and willing to listen.”
Wheeler’s guidance not only benefits the firefighters but the community as well.
“If [the department] are healthy, then they can show up the best in that time of crisis. So, this directly affects the community because all of our firefighters and police officers and military members can be healthy when they show up, they are their best selves,” Wheeler says.
She also reminds the public that while first responders are heroes, they are also just like the rest of us.
Wheeler says, “I think we think about all public safety officials as superhuman and we don’t really think of them having any difficulties, so all of us remembering as we go throughout life that we all have things.”
Wheeler also works as a counselor for the Outagamie County Sheriff’s Office and the Appleton Police Department.