Putting Responders First

South Lake local Rick Fink has made it his life’s mission to combat the stigma of mental health for first responders with OSI: Officer Support Initiative.

“The shooting of Christina Grimmie was the catalyst,” Rick Fink shares honestly, “I was called to the hospital where I sat with her body for two hours—it was raw for me, after sitting with her, I introduced myself, started talking to her; it was very raw for me. Then Pulse happened the next night. I was at the club moments before, checking on an off-duty officer; I was driving down Kaley as the shots were fired—I knew the people right inside, and I had befriended them, but seeing them lifeless just moments after I was there…is a feeling that’s hard to even put into words.” Rick rushed into Pulse Nightclub as the sound of gunshots still reverberated around him, knowing his life would never be the same again. Feelings of guilt, anger, sadness, depression, and, of course, immeasurable heartache took hold of many people’s hearts, including those of the first responders. 

“What no one reports is no police officer ran away from Pulse. When the reports of the suspect wearing a suicide vest emerged, every first responder paused for a split second and thought their last thought. It was a surreal feeling, no one thought to save themselves, we were focused and committed to helping the victims.” 

If one tragedy wasn’t enough, Rick Fink, over the next four years, lost fellow police officers and close friends to fatal shootings, his father, who was also a deputy chief who struggled with addiction. “The opiates may have played a factor in my dad’s death but what killed him was the “stigma.”” Rick’s father was too afraid to come forward and get help. Then Rick was given the awful news that his best friend in the military committed suicide—ultimately leaving Rick having thoughts of suicide himself.

“I drove into work numbly and was called into my new lieutenant’s office. I figured I had probably done something wrong, but he asked me a simple question… ‘are you okay?’.” 

After all he had been through, no one had even asked him. After Pulse, there was a CISM (Critical Incident Stress Management) debrief, where one person was assigned to 25 people who were directly impacted by the attack; Rick comments, “How are they supposed to understand my story, help me, and then help everyone else?” There had to be another way.

In 2021, Rick and his wife welcomed their new daughter. Admittedly, Rick stated, “I felt nothing.” A long-awaited daughter, something he had dreamed of and looked forward to, was met with emptiness. “That was my ‘A-Ha’ moment.”

“I found a therapy program geared toward first responders—but ultimately, I was told by them that I was ‘too damaged.’ I eventually found myself in a rehab for PTSD.” 

Unfortunately, Rick’s story of tragedy and shock is not uncommon. When first responders need help, where do they turn? Do they attend group sessions, talk to a therapist, or confide in their spouse? Unfortunately, the answer is none of the above. Approximately 85% of first responders anonymously report symptoms of mental health conditions, carrying the burden alone and living in the darkness of depression.

Light emerged from the damage Rick was told he had, leading to the creation of The Officer Support Initiative in 2023.

Becoming a first responder, it is ingrained in your mind to become numb to the things you encounter. Death, violence, emotion, fear, bodies, gore — “You are supposed to just make a joke in your mind about what you are witnessing so you can cope, but that’s not sustainable.” Rick and the three other leaders of OSI – Brandon, Mike, and Raul – are aware that if they seek help for their mental health, they may encounter responses such as “This is the job you signed up for,” “Suck it up, buttercup,” or even face reprimands at work.

“When you get hurt on the job, you get time off to recover, and when you return, no one questions if you can put on the badge and perform the duties of an officer. If you come forward after a traumatic event, requesting a mental health day or help—your capabilities are questioned”. 

“OSI focuses on supporting all first responders, veterans, and the families of the men and women who need our support.” From his own experience, Rick understands that, too often, families suffer in silence. 

“The one person who loves me more than anything is my wife, and when I was at my lowest, I treated her so poorly. We knew we needed to incorporate assistance for families just looking to support their loved ones.” OSI offers resources for families and works effortlessly to ensure that they have ample resources to help their loved ones and keep their home life stable. 

OSI now helps with officer training, where members tell their stories and encourage first responders to seek help. When someone calls one of the OSI members, a first responder’s life can be saved. “We get calls from people who are at their lowest, but they don’t understand that you can still fall six feet lower. We want to be there to catch them before they do,” Mike, another component of OSI, shares.

“When we get the phone call, we have a system to support that individual immediately. We will spend however long it takes on the phone with them while simultaneously working with our network of mental health professionals to get them in to talk to a specialist. From that moment on, we implement a system of ‘buddy checks’”, Mike explains.

A buddy check may seem simple, but in truth, it is something we can all do. When we know someone may be going through a challenging time, it’s our time to pick up the phone and help them. The act of simply being there is immeasurable. Mike and Rick say, “Many are alive today because of buddy checks.”

“While hearing a story from a civilian about their trauma is impactful, we have found that hearing from and learning from former officers who have done the job they are performing creates more opportunities and a space where they feel empowered to come forward and ask for assistance.” Self-disclosure typically occurs when the sharer feels the receiver is similar to them.

One year after its founding, OSI has received overwhelming support. The organization has partnered with the Orlando Magic, organized numerous successful fundraisers, participated in speaking engagements, taught crisis intervention classes, and provided mental health training at the police academy. Most importantly, it is proud of the 47 first responder lives impacted and ultimately saved by its efforts.

“We have had several police chiefs reach out to us to speak at their departments, where we ultimately get to carry our mission further.” Mike shares that he was speaking at a class when he was flagged down by someone who shared they were going to end their life, and this class was their “last chance.” OSI was able to get them into therapy within 15 minutes.

“I feel immensely proud of my journey and my story. I had to go through everything to get to this greater purpose.”

Rick recently took the stage at the Lights and Ladders event in Clermont, in part due to the unwavering support from the Clermont Police Department and Chief Broadway. “The bravery and courage of Officer Rick Fink and others to share their story is truly commendable,” Chief Broadway says, “Their testimonies and services will be the catalyst for first responders struggling with mental health or suffering in silence to get the help they need so they can continue to do the job they all love. “It is ok not to be ok” is more than a quote. Law enforcement leaders are responsible for ensuring that those chosen by our noble and honorable profession are well-prepared emotionally and mentally because healthy officers result in better policing. OSI is cultivating a culture that will save lives and positively impact the overall well-being of our Heroes.” Chief Broadway of the Clermont Police Department proudly supports the mission of OSI and is proud to help them break the Stigma.

In front of several thousand supporters; his daughter, holding his hand, happily shared, “I feel immensely proud of my journey and my story. I had to go through everything to get to this greater purpose, holding the torch of first responder mental health and breaking the stigma, hopeful and working toward a brighter tomorrow.”

Alphabet Chef

Can healthy eating be taught to young children like language or an instrument? For the alphabet chef, the answer is ‘oui’.

Laura St. John and her merry troop of performers are spreading joy, music, and, most importantly, education to the children of Lake County and beyond.

“My husband and I always ate healthily and knew it was something that we wanted to pass along to our children, but it was always a challenge,” Laura says. Recognizing that good nutrition is a key ingredient to children’s well-being, Laura whipped up something extraordinary: The Alphabet Chef.

“I put on the chef wig, hat, and apron, stocked up the picnic basket, created the chef’s voice, and it took off!” Laura exclaims. From schools to libraries to birthday parties, The Alphabet Chef is always cooking up a storm of fun and education. Her hands-on, engaging approach to lifelong nutrition has proven to be a recipe for success.

A multi-talented dynamo, Laura has spent over 25 years concocting unique entertainment for kids. Whether she’s dazzling as the Alphabet Chef, penning enchanting children’s books, singing her heart out, or captivating audiences as a performance artist, one thing is for sure: every endeavor is guaranteed to be bon appétit and a whole lot of fun!

Painting the Town

Rudy Drapiza’s art captures the soul of Clermont one brush stroke at a time.

It’s not like Rudy Drapiza had a choice. Art was imbued into his life as inherently as breathing. “Almost all my uncles were artists, and my grandfather, too,” Rudy says, standing before a canvas and easel set up in downtown Clermont. The master muralist and painter has been wielding a brush since 1973 when he relocated from the Philippines to the United States.

Rudy’s versatility with acrylics, oils, and watercolors has made him a sought-after artisan. His murals, known for their immersive quality, draw viewers into tranquil yet captivating landscapes. Clermont, known for its rolling hills and pristine lakes, plays a significant role in Rudy’s artistic vision. “The unique landscapes offer endless inspiration,” he notes. His murals often depict the serene beauty of Clermont’s natural settings, bringing a touch of local charm to his large-scale artworks.

Residents can find Rudy’s artwork showcased in various local venues and online through his Drapiza Gallery. He continues to work primarily on commissions, adapting to clients’ needs with remarkable flexibility. His advice to aspiring artists is this: “Spend a lot of time in nature,” he advises. “Nature is the second book of God; it teaches us everything we need to know.”

Rudy can frequently be spotted at Waterfront Park, a living tableau of vibrance. Ultimately, Rudy’s goal is to create art that resonates with its viewers. As he beautifully puts it, “If I can make people smile and make people happy with my paintings, then I’ve done my job.”

A few examples of Rudy’s cathartic artworks, ranging from serene lake vistas to vibrant local scenes, showcasing his masterful technique and capturing the area’s natural beauty.

cityclermont

It’s like tennis meets ping pong with less running and more unresolved issues. All jokes aside, pickleball’s rapid growth caught the eye of the Clermont City Council, who approved the construction of six more pickleball courts with lighting and covering at Clermont Arts And Recreation Center!

doublePlay

Can’t wait that long? Take a swing or 30 at Double Play Batting Cages (@doubleplay_cages), the new, cutting-edge 13,000-sq-ft indoor facility at 431 Citrus Tower Blvd.

BBspourhouse

When you’re done playing around, swing by downtown to grab drinks at BB’s Pourhouse (@bbspourhouse) within the Art Walk location…

…or Boba Baby (@bobababy_specialtea) inside the Downtown Exchange.

thewave_clermont

Or even grab a healthy bite at The Wave Bowls (@ thewavebowls), the charming Airstream food truck located behind The Roasted Spirit.

marykay

Last but not least, swing by the new Mary Kay Pamper and Glow Studio in the Clermont Executive Office behind the Citrus Tower Publix and tell Jan and Kathy The Local sent you!

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