Police Chief, CHDS Alum Leads Effort to Create Non-profit Wellness Centers for First Responders

During nearly four decades working in law enforcement, Herndon, VA, Police Chief Maggie DeBoard has seen firsthand the mental and physical toll that the job takes on police officers. Never has that been so clear than in the past few years as law enforcement has dealt with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and the “Defund the Police” movement accompanied by harsh public criticism. 

Now, in 2024, the Center for Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS) Master’s Program alumna has initiated a novel approach to helping law enforcement and other first responders including firefighters, emergency medical service workers, and dispatchers when dealing with the health impacts that come with stressful occupations.

DeBoard (Master’s Program cohort 1403/1404) has created a non-profit organization called the Foundation for First Responder Wellness and Resiliency (Foundation FRWR) that plans to construct and operate a series of private outpatient holistic health and wellness centers, dubbed FORWARD Centers, dedicated to providing comprehensive mental health support for both active and retired first responders.

The organization just launched its website, www.FoundationFRWR.org, in February, and it is overseen by a board led by DeBoard as President and Chair.

Starting in May, the foundation will conduct a capital fundraising campaign to open its first center in Northern Virginia. 

DeBoard describes the future centers as “a trusted and confidential place to receive clinical treatment for anxiety, depression, and PTSD, as well as a host of education and training classes in support of wellness and resiliency.”

She said the centers will also be conducting ongoing research in support of employing best practices into its services.

“Through our partners, the centers will offer culturally competent and confidential clinical treatment, health services, education programs, and financial counseling,” DeBoard added. “The FORWARD Centers will create a safe and anonymous space, breaking down barriers of stigma and job-related consequences. The centers will serve active and retired first responders and their families, recognizing the ongoing need for wellness services into retirement. We will conduct research to establish best practices and evidence-based strategies to help us understand what works to support first responders in the real world. Our goal is to find down-to-earth, actionable solutions that make real and measurable differences in the lives of first responders. By prioritizing accessibility and taking a holistic approach, the Foundation aims to significantly improve the overall well-being and resilience of the first responder community.”

DeBoard credited her CHDS education with providing her a wider perspective that has helped her understand the broader implications of mental health and wellness in the first responder community.

CHDS “gave me a very broad understanding of how the various pieces of our homeland security blueprint affected each other; it taught me to think more strategically about problem solving, focusing on not just the issue at hand [mental health needs of our first responders], but about how that problem could impact our entire profession,” she said. “If we don’t properly treat those that protect and serve, their effectiveness is compromised and that impacts community safety and their ability to have legal and proper interactions with our citizens. I learned to think about not trying to address problems in an isolated manner, but to find ways to break out of organizational and professional silos to develop more strategic and effective solutions to real problems.

Maggie DeBoard, Herndon, VA, Police Chief and CHDS master’s alum

CHDS “forced me to think in ways I wasn’t comfortable with, and that’s how you grow.”

While her CHDS thesis, “Applying Systems Thinking to Law Enforcement Safety: Recommendation for a Comprehensive Safety Management Framework,” did not focus on first responder health and wellness, DeBoard said there’s a “very distinct connection in my brain,” explaining that “occupational safety in public safety, whether it be in law enforcement, fire/EMS, or communications, can only occur when you are mentally capable of making the sound, effective, and quick decisions needed on the job. Mental anxiety, depression, PTSD, whether it be from traumatic exposures or organizational stress can negatively impact your ability to be effective. This can have immense ramifications on the employee’s safety, as well as the community they serve. It impacts sleep, clear judgement, community interactions, etc. Without mental and physical wellness, there is no real ability to be a safe first responder.”

DeBoard said her Foundation Vice-President and Board Co-Chair Jaysyn Carson came up with the initial idea for the foundation and wellness centers in 2021 after he retired from the Fairfax, VA, Police Department after 30 years of service and joined DeBoard in the Herndon Police Department as a lieutenant. Together, they put a plan in place to bring the concept to reality, with the expectation of opening the initial center by the end of 2026.

DeBoard, a police chief for 12 years and a past President and board member of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police who currently serves as the organization’s legislative liaison, said she realized law enforcement health and wellness was an issue for years. But she said the issue came into starker focus more recently when a national wellness for public safety survey showed that 12 percent of active law enforcement officers in Virginia had experienced suicidal ideation.

“We knew we had a problem,” DeBoard said, noting the stressors of the pandemic and anti-police sentiment including in the press. “But the survey numbers were horrific. The problem is huge and it’s not getting better.”

DeBoard said the idea for a private, non-profit foundation emerged from a desire to “keep politics out” of the initiative given the “lack of executive and jurisdictional leadership supporting mental health care” despite much talk of supporting it, adding that “government agencies delivering these resources are often impacted by politics, and are inconsistent with their approach as a result.”

She noted that “many departments lack their own wellness resources, don’t have enough resources to effectively serve their employees, or don’t have culturally competent resources to treat first responders.” And, she said “many employees don’t trust their agencies and won’t self-report their struggles to them for fear of losing their jobs or being labeled. Our centers will be private and confidential.”

Finally, she noted that government facilities “almost never provide these wellness resources to retirees, which we will do,” pointing out that the FORWARD Centers will each have a retiree liaison. She added that the plan is to cover co-pays of our retirees and first responders who can’t afford it through donations.

In addition to clinical resources, DeBoard said the centers will also bring in other wellness resources like peer support, chaplains and spiritual advisors, and service dogs.

Meanwhile, she said the foundation will be developing the National Wellness Survey for Public Safety 2.0 and distributing it nationally sometime later this year and will be looking to distribute it to a wide range of public safety agencies.

INQUIRIES: Heather Hollingsworth Issvoran, Communications and Recruitment | hissvora@nps.edu, 831-402-4672 (PST)

Scroll to Top