Compass project helps first responders focus on wellness

West Virginia’s opioid crisis sparks launch of initiatives to support mental and physical health among fire and police personnel


Many communities across the United States have been severely impacted by the opioid crisis, but perhaps none as much as Huntington, West Virginia.

In 2017, West Virginia had the highest per capita rate of opioid addiction in the United States, and more than 41 overdose deaths per 100,000 population. Huntington, a city of around 50,000, was at the center of this crisis. That year, there were at least 132 overdose deaths in Huntington and the surrounding county, an area with a total population of only around 100,000.

Huntington fought back hard against this scourge, and in just a year, overdose deaths were down by 50%. That success can be attributed to several new programs that address both community risk as well as fitness and wellness for first responders.

The Compass project combines mental health and physical fitness support for fire and police in Huntington. (Photo/Compaass project)
The Compass project combines mental health and physical fitness support for fire and police in Huntington. (Photo/Compaass project)

Compass project: 8 pillars of wellness

One of those initiatives is the Compass project, which combines mental health and physical fitness support for fire and police in Huntington. The project was launched in 2019, developed by Amy Jefferson and Amy Hanshaw, locally known as “the Amys.” The program is funded by the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenges, which focuses on supporting initiatives that are both sustainable and replicable.

The program offers physical wellness support and personal training for fire and police, designed by Hanshaw, and mental health and wellness support through a variety of programming, designed by Jefferson.

“There is such a big need for both mental and physical health services for first responders,” Jefferson said. “During the opioid crisis, a lot of first responders were showing signs of compassion fatigue. They were showing up to calls and seeing the same people over and over or were seeing people they had gone to school with dying of overdoses. They were burned out. They didn’t have access to resources. If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of others.”

The holistic program addresses the eight pillars of wellness:

  1. Financial
  2. Spiritual
  3. Intellectual
  4. Career development
  5. Environmental
  6. Physical
  7. Emotional
  8. Social

In its initial days, the program offered two activities and one training per month, with activities focused on “fun, family, and team building,” Hanshaw said. Trainings addressed specific topics within the eight stated goals, such as retirement planning.

The Compass project was launched in 2019 and developed by Amy Jefferson and Amy Hanshaw, locally known as “the Amys.”
The Compass project was launched in 2019 and developed by Amy Jefferson and Amy Hanshaw, locally known as “the Amys.”

COVID-19 brings change

The Compass project was designed to include a wide variety of in-person activities, including ball games, cave tours, cooking, yoga, arts and crafts, kid-driven activities, as well as hands-on fitness and personal training sessions. All that changed with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Suddenly Jefferson and Hanshaw were tasked with transitioning the program to a virtual platform. Jefferson developed online video trainings to address mental health issues. Hanshaw posted workouts on the department’s private Facebook page. They created activities that people could do at home with their families.

In recent weeks, Jefferson and Hanshaw have been able to re-engage in person with firefighters via two “station days” per week. And limited in-person contact with police officers had resumed at the time of this interview. Prior to the pandemic, contact was made with police department members during roll call.

First responder wellness center           

Another initiative that is currently in development in Huntington is the creation of a Wellness Center for first responders. This facility, which will be located on the fifth floor of the police department, with its own dedicated access, would go far beyond just providing a functional fitness venue. It would also provide a nutrition center, dedicated quiet space for meditation or relaxation, mental and physical health support, as well as office space for Jefferson and Hanshaw.

This facility would not be part of the grant funding; separate fundraising is currently taking place to support it.

Gaining trust and making progress    

These programs are relatively new but have already been embraced by department members. “It’s been a test and learn process,” Jefferson said. “One of the main concerns we had at the beginning of the program was buy-in from first responders. We have spent quite a bit of time since the beginning building relationships and earning trust.”           

Hanshaw added: “I feel like our trust has been gained, especially in the fire department with face-to-face interactions. When we do our station visits, we don’t show up with any agenda. We just show up, we let them talk and join their conversation. That type of interaction really has an impact. Showing up with an agenda doesn’t work. But it’s amazing what can unfold.”           

Jefferson pointed out that many issues can emerge through casual conversation. She has had several first responders approach her with personal issues, seeking additional help. That was a big win, since “with this demographic, there can be a stigma with asking for help with anything,” she said.

Hanshaw also described a recent interaction at a station where informal conversation led to the captain asking her to customize a workout for the crew.           

Help yourself so you can help others

Funding for these programs will be challenging in times of diminished revenues and economic hard times. The Bloomberg grant runs through 2021, and there is the possibility of extension. Fundraising for the Wellness Center continues. The city will also seek out other grant support. The current mayor as well as fire and police department heads are fully support these programs.

Learn more about the Compass project.

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