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911 At Ease International hits healing notes for First Responders with 911 Project Harmony

CARPINTERIA, Calif. - Taking care of those who take care of us during emergencies and times of disaster is a high priority for our local communities, up and down the Central and South Coast.

Retired SBPD Sgt. Mike McGrew and Co-Founder of 911 At Ease International (Herb Tuyay/KEYT)

The mental wellness of local First Responders is the sole purpose of 911 At Ease International, a Carpinteria-based nonprofit, co-founded in 2014 by former Santa Barbara Police Sergeant Mike McGrew and Michael Hammer of the Armand Hammer Foundation.

The nonprofit recently launched a new type of therapy, 911 Project Harmony. It embraces the healing nature of music and a spiritual journey for those suffering and healing from post-traumatic stress.

"We were told it's a tough job, go out, do your best and suck it up," said McGrew.

For McGrew and other First Responders, those frontline experiences include soul-crushing trauma.

"We see things that are so bad that you can't tell anybody about it. You know, you just shoulder, you just hold it."

McGrew retired from the SBPD after a 31 year career. He is a third generation First Responder. His father, Warner McGrew, served every rank within the Santa Barbara City Fire Department and retired as Fire Chief after a 35 year career. His grandfather by the same name, Warner McGrew, was a decorated WWII veteran who joined the Los Angeles City Fire Department after serving in combat. McGrew has other relatives as well who've served as firefighters or police officers.

To this day, McGrew, now a pastor, carries childhood memories of harrowing calls his father went on. And, haunting images from his own. 

"Most people go through five traumatic events in their life and if somebody has had a really hard life, then they'll have 25 traumatic events in their life. But a police officer or firefighter is going to experience 200 in their career."

"When he introduced us to At Ease it was like, 'Oh yeah, this is your heart, Michael,'" said David Smith, Chief Operating Officer and Head Security with the Carpinteria-based Armand Hammer Foundation.

Smith's background in music during the 1980s is extensive. So is his faith. Both are a perfect fit for 911 Project Harmony and the cause quickly became personal.

"Taking the torch has been awesome because I realized I had a second chance," said Smith. "I've been there. I've been there where I've needed 911."

McGrew explained the growing need to help triage those serving on the frontlines during emergencies.

"There was a lot of unhealthy coping mechanisms that people would go to. And that's why police and firefighters have a very high suicide rate, very high divorce rate. And alcoholism and substance abuse is something that's very, very common."

To date, the non-profit has served more than 10,000 First Responders in four states. Support has expanded to now embrace entire families. 

"The testimonies that we've that we've received are just like, 'Hey, this program saved my life. It saved my marriage and it gave me a new inspiration for my job.'"

911 Project Harmony pairs First Reponders with professional songwriters. The process is simple but powerful. The songwriter listens as the first responder shares bits of their darkest memories and deepest fears, putting it all down on paper.

"It's a really it's a really beautiful and intimate process," said Hannah Griffin, a songwriter with 911 Project Harmony. "The goal wasn't really to create some awesome song that's catchy and everybody wants to listen to. The song really was for him and for him to find healing through. So that was just the greatest blessing of all, that he was able to find that healing and that it meant so much to him and his family."

"It hit me in a way that I've never experienced before, where there was just a release that I needed," said McGrew. "But there was also a feeling, a feeling of good that happened."

"The power of music comes and administers to you, it just soothes," said Smith. "It's a soothing agent."

And then, a song for First Responder families. McGrew said honoring warriors with song is a centuries- old tradition.​

"It offers a hope and opportunity for the community to come together to support those who are out there serving in a very special way."

Article Topic Follows: Santa Barbara - South County

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Beth Farnsworth

Beth Farnsworth is the evening anchor for KEYT News Channel 3. To learn more about Beth, click here


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