Video by Jeff Baur
Office of Public and Employee Communications
CDCR’s Peer Support Program members are on call around the clock to ensure staff involved in work-related critical incidents are provided with resources and support to cope with the immediate effects of a traumatic incident.
In 2018, they took their service beyond the walls of state prisons, heading 80-strong to Paradise, where they responded with emotional and practical support to the communities devastated by the Camp Fire.
For their service, the Camp Fire Peer Support Program has earned a Unit Citation, awarded for great courage displayed by a departmental unit in the course of conducting an operation in the face of immediate life-threatening circumstances.
This is the final installment of our videos highlighting the brave men and women of CDCR. We salute them all for their exceptional service.
(Watch the video by clicking the play button below)
Watch the YouTube video (may not play on a CDCR computer): https://youtu.be/0mgZOnGeqFk
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Capt. John McClellan: To be prepared for what we came to…Never. There’s no way you could’ve prepared for that. It was like walking into Hiroshima.
Cabrina Robertson: The Camp Fire was unlike anything that I have ever experienced and we did go down there sort of wide-eyed not really knowing what to expect but we wanted to help.
Officer Ricky Jimenez: That was my first time actually dealing with something like a wildfire and the sheer chaos of it. You know, you can actually have an awe moment where you’re kinda just stuck looking around but you’ve got to snap out of it quick and realize why you’re there and what you’re there to do.
Lt. John Ojo: It’s real life because, ultimately, you know, you’re stepping into somebody’s life and a lot of people were hurt. A lot of the officers there were just working day after day after day after day.
Ashlee Schmidt: So many people in uniform and just seeing the, in a good way, the amount of people that were there to help from all sides of law enforcement.
McClellan: The group that came together for the Camp Fire was a group of 80 people and it was from, I believe, six or seven different institutions.
Robertson: It was wonderful to meet like-minded people that were there wanting to do whatever it took to make a difference.
McClellan: The Sheriff reached out to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for help cuz he realized that 200 or something of his first responders had lost their homes and all they had left was their uniform and the vehicle they were driving. He knew there was a much needed use for peer support so he called out and that’s when Katherine Minnich put out the call to all the team leaders. So we actually got to ride around with those people that that’s what they had left and talk to them while they were still working.
Robertson: And just listening…just seeing how things were for them and what they experienced and what they had gone through.
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea: One of the things that we recognized early on, I think the day of the fire, was that this fire, this event was gonna have a significant impact on our people in terms of their emotional well-being.
Jimenez: Our job was to shadow other chaplains from other law enforcement agencies and to go out and kinda talk to the officers, law enforcement agencies that were already out in the field.
Ojo: So in that small area, the PSP team coming, I was helping with first like, animal rescue. The next time I was assisting with, you know, just road blockades because people were trying to go out, looters.
Schmidt: They sent me to East facility where they had all the donations coming in. We sorted through so many donations. There were trailers full coming in. We had to sort everything, lay it out on tables so these people could basically come in and shop for these goods. Some people, I just, I played with their kids so they could shop. Others I could tell that they were pretty overwhelmed and I kinda just took over and shopped for them.
McClellan: When we first got there, it wasn’t…it wasn’t a warm welcome. You know, they were stressed. They were going through a lot of things. They didn’t know who we were. But after a couple of days, then it started to change. Then they would see us and they’d wave and say Hi and “Hey you wanna go. Let’s go up here. I’m gonna go check this out.” Ok cool. So we kinda started to become part of the team. It was also creating a situation where the people that were there build these bonds with individuals. I mean, I know there’s several of the people that came up that still talk to people up there.
Robertson: We can’t change the tragedy. You know, we can’t take away the pain and we can’t take away the loss and the destruction but we can offer something. You know, we can offer compassion. We can offer support and we can offer resources and I think that in any devastating situation, that’s the best that you could possibly take out of it.
Ojo: The mission is to help. Right? The mission is to support. The mission is to get people out of harm’s way. Right? And that’s the PSP team.
Schmidt: I don’t feel like I deserve to be recognized. It’s just kind of like a no-brainer to help.
Jimenez: The simple thank yous, just opening up, you know, trusting us, trusting a complete stranger at that, with their issues and what they’re battling. That was the reward in itself.
McClellan: I don’t feel it’s necessary. I feel I was doing a minimal thing compared to what the people of Paradise, you know, the first responders in Paradise, Magalia that lost everything, they’re the one that deserve some kind of recognition.
Robertson: It’s an honor, absolutely. I mean, I feel very honored. It was very emotional and there was a lot of loss and feeling like I’m getting a praise and an Atta-boy for being there with people that lost so much and sacrificed so much…it’s a little bit odd.
Jimenez: With all the negativity in this environment, it does help out. It shines a little light, you know, on this prison and on the institution. So yeah…it’s…it’s pretty cool.
McClellan: To have 80 people that have been touched in a way that, you know, no one else is gonna ever experience something like this. You may have another disaster but it’s not gonna be the same one. So the 80 people that are involved in this all have a bond.
Ojo: In looking at the whole fire, I felt like…boom… Like, we’re here assisting people in a time that it’s really traumatic. But my true takeaway is that time is so precious. It’s priceless. You know, how you spend your time is really important. Right? So it changed my entire trajectory.
Robertson: At CDCR, we don’t typically get the opportunity to go out and help the public out in that manner. So for us to go outside of our local institutions was something that we’ve never done before. It was a pioneering mission and being a part of that was a tremendous honor. By far, out of my career, it was the most meaningful thing that I’ve done.
Honea: I’m glad that they’re being recognized. I think that’s very, very deserving of the recognition. They played an important role in our overall response, that role to help our folks deal with a horribly traumatic event. And again, I think that the work they did back then is paying dividends as we move forward and I’m grateful for that.