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Fighting to reduce the plague and stigma of first responder suicides

Families who lost a first responder family member to suicide are gathering in Dallas this weekend to console each other and to help save the next troubled soul.

DALLAS — Families of first responders are gathering this weekend in Dallas because they are members of a painful fraternity: families who have lost a loved one to suicide. 

But the gathering is also to provide them with the emotional support they need to continue fighting in their loved one's name.

On Friday morning, the photos of 64 smiling faces were placed in clear frames and stood on top of a table in the lobby of the Double Tree Hotel on Valley View Lane. 

The photos included one of Homero Omar Calderon, a Dallas County deputy. His widow ShaRonda Calderon was there, still wearing his wedding ring on a chain around her neck.

"This ring represents us still," she said. "He's still very much a part of me. He goes with me everywhere and that's my strength."

Strength she has needed to move forward with her life after Omar, suffering from PTSD brought by the calls and crime scenes he endured, took his life in 2018. All of those smiling faces in picture frames in the hotel lobby took their lives too. 

Each one of them was a first responder.

"They see a happy human being who had a family. And to me that's everything," said Karen Solomon, the CEO of First H.E.L.P., a non-profit dedicated to raising awareness and reducing the stigma of police and firefighter suicides. "Because it could happen to everybody. They are anybody. They are you they are me. That's what's important to see that suicide affects anybody."

"It is the leading cause of death. It beats line of duty death every year with the exception of COVID," Solomon said of the latest statistics tracking first responder deaths.

So this weekend, First H.E.L.P. is hosting families of first responders from all over the country for a two-day series of counseling, support, encouragement and an awareness walk on the streets near the hotel.  They also want to fight the stigma that often keeps first responders from getting the help they need. 

So far this year in the U.S., First H.E.L.P. has tracked 123 first responder suicides. Some years that number has neared 300.

"I have attempted suicide three times in my life," Solomon said. "So I know what it's like to be there. And I know how hard that is. So for me it was really, I can't believe this is how poorly we're treating people who have given themselves to their community for so long and we're just gonna pretend they didn't exist?" 

First responder families are sometimes denied funerals with full honors and denied full survivor benefits when suicide is the cause of death.

ShaRonda Calderon, now a board member with First H.E.L.P., hopes to have the impact her very first public speech did after her husband's death.

"This officer met me when I was walking out. And he said I'm gonna get the help I didn't know I needed. I still have chill bumps from that. Every time I think about that. Like one person, maybe I came her for one person."

Credit: WFAA

First H.E.L.P. stands for Honor, Educate, Lead, Prevent.  And in the hotel lobby Friday morning, ShaRonda was doing just that, greeting every family in this same painful fraternity. But Omar, she says, is with her.

"I'm still proud of him," she said. "Because of how strong he was to endure as long as he did. If he would have just had the tools and help that a lot of these officers now have, without a doubt I know that he would still be here."

Here, and helping save the next smiling face from the burdens they may be trying to hide too.

You can find out more about the Friday and Saturday event here.

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