A Community Cares For Its Own

by Petra Martin
Founder, Whidbey CareNet

There’s a palpable sense of community on South Whidbey Island, Washington. You know your neighbors and learn the hard way that you’d better keep relational fences mended, because if you don’t, you’ll invariably run into the people you’re most trying to avoid at the post office or on the ferry. When tragedy strikes, the community rallies, as it did in early November, 2011 around the families of three young men, aged 19, 20, and 22, who died in an accident. And a fourth, 18, who is spending more than five years in jail for killing three of her best friends while driving under the influence.

Whidbey-CareNet-LogoSix weeks later, on a windy Christmas day, a tree broke off and landed on the vehicle of a family as it passed underneath, killing the youngest child, 9-year-old Zippy. A few days later, Leckey, a 56-year-old volunteer firefighter/EMT who responded to the call, stopped by the South Whidbey Commons, the nonprofit where I worked.

As is the case for so many emergency responders serving in rural areas, Leckey knew Zippy. He’d bandaged her knee while on duty at the local Soup Box Derby the year before and was now returning from her house, where he and other members of the community feathered the nest for Zippy’s father, who was returning from the hospital with a broken neck. As was the case with the earlier accident, members of the community rallied around Zippy’s family. But alone at the Commons, Leckey burst into tears.

“Who,” I wondered, “is rallying around these emergency responders?”

I organized our first-ever community grief counseling event at the Commons, but neither it nor a critical incident stress debriefing—the first Leckey had experienced in 15 years of service—relieved his pain.

I wanted to do something to ease the grief of emergency responders like Leckey, but all I could offer was a tool I’d created to help people put their feelings into words. Then one day, while sitting at the kitchen table, I thought, “I can’t help responders directly, but I can build a website and ask others to help.”

I did exactly that in January of 2012, and within three weeks, 25 people signed up to offer free counseling, massage therapy, naturopathic and chiropractic care, and other services to emergency responders. Whidbey CareNet providers aren’t trained to put out fires and administer CPR, but they’re trained to relieve emotional and physical pain, and they support their community by caring for its emergency responders.

Seventy percent of firefighters in the United States are volunteers who have day-job stress and home-life stress like everybody else. But unlike the volunteers at the local food bank or soup kitchen, volunteer firefighters and EMTs expose themselves to trauma-related conditions such as PTSD through their service. That’s too high a price to pay, and Whidbey CareNet providers work to prevent that. In addition to the care providers offer, we’re developing a training program that will help emergency responders and their loved ones relieve ongoing stress and trauma, so they can prevent conditions such as PTSD.
Fourteen months after Whidbey CareNet was founded, 10-year-old Rhianna died. I received an email message from South Whidbey Fire/EMS Chief Rusty Palmer telling me to alert Whidbey CareNet providers, because he was sending responders their way. And that’s when I realized that Whidbey CareNet was working. Our community rallied in support of Rhianna’s family, just as it had when Zippy died. But this time, a community of caregivers also rallied around its emergency responders.

About the Author: Petra began caring for people when she was 13 months old, and her brother Tom was born. A sister soon followed, and Petra learned to size up and meet both expressed and unexpressed needs early in life. Facilitating connections between those in need and what they need became second nature.


In November and December of 2011, a shaken Fire Technology student and tearful EMT shared with Petra the trauma they experienced when responding to accidents that killed four young people. Petra realized that she never saw emergency responders as people with needs like her own. Perhaps it was their uniform that created a sense of formality and distance. Or perhaps it was because none of the responders she’d met had talked about the trauma they’d experienced. Whatever the reason, it didn’t seem right to Petra that those who volunteered to care for us on the worst days of our lives had no one to care for them. More than 30 providers agreed, and Whidbey CareNet was born. It is one of the most rewarding things Petra has ever been involved with, and she feels blessed that it came to fruition through her.

About the Author: Petra Martin is the founder of Whidbey CareNet, which she co-directs with volunteer firefighter/EMT R, Leckey Harrison. In addition to serving as co-director of Whidbey CareNet, Petra is the creator and publisher of the Mixed Emotions card deck, owner of the Whidbey Island Writer’s Refuge, program director at the Whidbey Island Writer’s Association, soulmate and life partner of Leckey, and mother of teenage son, Adrian.

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