First responders lose horse therapy program

"Dave Vargo (left) is a Chandler Fire Department firefighter of 17 years. He attended the first responder program at Hunkapi, a therapy horse farm in northern Scottsdale founded by Terra Schaad (right), for eight weeks."

Hunkapi, a therapy horse farm in northern Scottsdale, is asking for the community’s help.

On May 9, Hunkapi terminated its first responder program due to lack of funding. The nonprofit organization needs $30,000 to revive the program.

“I’m emotional because I feel like it was a very tight-knit group. There were some participants in the program that could have benefited from being in longer,” said Hunkapi Founder and Executive Director Terra Schaad. “We really wanted to be able to offer something that was effective and preventative.”

Gila River Indian Community donated money to Hunkapi back in November, funding the 16-week pilot program for first responders, including firefighters, cops, nurses and more, suffering from PTSD, addiction and other issues.

The program primarily focuses on somatic experience, equine therapy and meditation.

Chandler Fire Department firefighter of 17 years, Dave Vargo, was one of the first responders who participated in the program.

Vargo was introduced to Hunkapi through his brother and retired 20-year firefighter and paramedic, John Vargo.

After he retired, John started a nonprofit called Turn In to introduce meditation and mindfulness to first responders, “so that they can calm their minds and find peace in their lives,” he said.

John heard about Hunkapi’s first responder program in December 2018 from Dr. Vershalee Shukla, a radiation oncologist from Vincere Cancer Center in Scottsdale who specializes in screenings and treatments for first responders.

John asked Schaad if Turn In could participate in the program, providing meditation sessions.

She agreed, and he drove to Scottsdale from San Diego once a week for 16 weeks.

“Over the course of the program, I witnessed mentally exhausted and depressed first responders come back to life. At the conclusion, they were laughing again and had found some peace return to their lives. We have received several heartfelt testimonies from past participants that confirm this program should never end,” John said.

Dave compares the stress and impact of being a firefighter for nearly two decades as drops continuously collecting in a bucket until, one day, the bucket overflows.

“You don’t realize it until your cup is full, type of thing,” he said.

“I had stress at home that affected my family and things that were starting to affect my work. I didn’t want to go to work anymore, and I would rather lay in bed — and that’s not me. I’ve changed as a person because this job has changed me since I have no outlet to do this,” he added.

According to an April 2018 white paper commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation, less than 5 percent of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the United States have suicide prevention training programs.

“In my 20 years of service, I responded to tens of thousands of emergency calls and received thousands of hours of training. At no point did I receive any training on how to cope with all of the trauma I witnessed for 20 years,” John said.

Additionally, the aforementioned study stated that first responders are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.

In 2017, there were at least 103 firefighter suicides and 140 police officer suicides. In contrast, 93 firefighters and 129 police officers died in the line of duty.

The study goes on to say that PTSD and depression rates among firefighters and police officers are as much as five-times higher than the rates within the civilian population.

“[First responders] are seeing how it’s been affecting other guys. People are leaving early. We’ve had some deaths and drug overdoses and people with chemical addictions who are trying to battle that stress on a chemical level,” Dave said.

The Hunkapi program was split up into two eight-week sessions. Dave attended one of those sessions.

For two hours, sometimes more, Dave and his group of around 10 other male and female firefighters and first responders from all over the Valley meditated with John and worked with the horses on-site.

“When you come in through the gates, you’re in a community of people who have lived and breathed and spilled blood in the same mud that you have. It’s easier to relate versus talking to someone who has no idea of what you’ve seen, what you’ve been through, what your day is like, what your life is like,” he said.

Dave worked with Montana, one of the Hunkapi therapy horses.

He would walk Montana through an obstacle course, feed him and, ultimately, build up trust with each other.

During one session, Schaad asked Dave to round-pen Montana.

“It was very emotional for me because the horse reacted off my body language and the more I was at ease, the more the horse was at ease. You can ask it to trot, you can ask it to run, you can ask it to walk,” Dave explained.

At one point, Schaad suggested Dave ask the horse to stop in its tracks — not verbally, but in his heart.

“I did and he stopped. I got pretty emotional,” Dave said. “Terra asked me, ‘How’d you feel when you got in there?’ and I said, ‘I just didn’t want to screw up Montana.’ It wasn’t about me; it was about Montana.”

Schaad then asked him, “Is that how you feel about your life? You don’t want to screw it up?”

“That was a breakthrough,” Dave said.

John saw the impact of the program firsthand.

“I can say, without a doubt and no exaggeration, that lives were changed and saved because of this program,” he said.

Fellow firefighters at Chandler Fire Department caught wind of Dave’s Hunkapi experience and would quietly ask him about the program.

“When people heard that I come, no one would talk to me about it in front of other people; but there have been a lot of people who have grabbed me in the parking lot when I was leaving work or coming to work, like, ‘Hey man, can you tell me a little bit more about this?” Dave said, adding:

“There’s an undertow of people or of the job that nobody wants to admit they have any kind of problem because we’re first responders. We’re not weak. We don’t have problems. We take care of other people’s problems. So, there’s that macho type thing that happens, [but] the guard is coming down a little bit.”

Through the program, Schaad said she hopes to normalize what the first responders go through on a day-to-day basis.

“They are a culture that says you are weak if you are feeling the effect of your job,” she said. “They’re living people’s nightmares every day.”

Dave added: “The culture of the first responder is to just pull your boots up, keep going. We have to overcome that part of our brain saying flight, fight or freeze. We can’t freeze and we can’t fly; we have to fight every time. And we do that five to 10 times in a 24-hour shift.”

As Hunkapi attempts to raise another $30,000 to bring back the first responder program, members have started their own support group.

They meet every Thursday.

“[They] wanted to keep the community,” Schaad said.

“They weren’t ready to leave,” Dave added.

Schaad, along with Clinical Therapist and Counselor at Hunkapi Lacey Schuster, have also extended 10 private sessions.

“That’s our way of giving back and also of feeling like you need to be out there to support,” Schaad said.

Dave’s message to the community regarding re-funding the first responder program is a simple, yet impactful one.

“We take care of you. Take care of us,” he said. “We’re human and we live other people’s nightmares for a living.”

For more information about Hunkapi and/or to donate, visit hunkapi.org.