TUCSON (KVOA) - It has been a challenging year for all of us, but it has been especially hard for first responders and frontline workers who were struggling even before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, these heroes on the frontlines of community service are finding help through a new equine therapy program in Tucson healing with horses.
TRAK launched its “Heroes First” program in 2020 with grant funding from the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona.
Erik Lindmark, a ranch hand at the Therapeutic Ranch for Animals and Kids says the non-profit changed his life.
"I talk I have almost conversations with the horses and I go stall to stall and if I am having a bad day, I will talk to these animals and they listen, if you look in their eyes they listen and they're responding to you,” said Erik Lindmark, former New York Police Officer and volunteer at TRAK.
Erik didn’t always know his way around horses. He spent more than two decades as a police officer in New York, but after years of suffering from PTSD from his time in law enforcement, he said he found comfort in the animals.
"Very healing, very healing, 9/11 is a bad day and I am fortunate that my bosses don't make me work that day. They let me have the day off and I spend it here and just cry and talk to Norman here, he will let me throw my arms over his back, lay on him and listen to him breathe."
Disabled combat veteran and retired Philadelphia police officer and CPS investigator Larry Trush is also learning to heal with a little help from his four-legged friends.
"When I retired from child protective services I went to CASAS and was rocking substance abused newborns for about two years. It would help my PTSD, but they closed the shelter so I came to these big babies,” said Larry Trush.
Larry and Erik have been able to learn how to cope with traumatic events from their past through the “Heroes First” program. A program that offers military veterans, first responders and frontline workers a unique support group where the horses are the therapists.
“It is so neat. You sit in the middle of a turnout with horses all around you walking freely,” said Trush.
“It provided them a different nonjudgmental area to come together with these powerful nonverbal beings. It was just absolutely amazing, an amazing experience,” said TRAK program director Chelsea Menke.
It was an experience Child and Family therapist CC White didn’t know she needed.
“It was the first time I saw a group include mental health professionals so I almost teared up and I remember calling and saying you know if an ems worker if a firefighter needs it and the person said I think you need it and you're just right for the role,” said CC White.
TRAK’S program director Chelsea Menke said they launched the wellness program free of charge through donations and grant money and decided to open it up to people like CC after the pandemic hit.
“It has changed my life personally and professionally forever,” said CC White.
Now, CC, Larry and Erik are giving back to the place that gave so much to them as they all volunteer at TRAK.
For Erik, that also means a new future in service, one he never would have imagined all those years ago on the streets of New York.
"As a result of the years spent volunteering I have now started examining my own life. I am fortunate I have a pension, I worked almost 27 years at the police department and I am seriously considering going back to school to finish my masters in social work and getting trained to be an equine therapist. It sounds so silly as someone who grew up in apartments and grew up in New York the words come out of my mouth equine therapist and I am like wow go figure my former coworkers and friends are all directors of security of places doing things related to law enforcement, but with my PTSD I can’t and that’s what I want to do, I want to be an equine therapist,” said Erik Lindmark.
To learn more about the Heroes First program or donate to keep it running, click here.