‘Pig Bowl’ in Schenectady to raise funds for mental health programs for first respondersRead Now
By Indiana Nash | October 20, 2022
Scenes from the 2021 'Pig Bowl' at Union College. Upper Right: Schenectady resident Ariana Mohammed tosses the coin at last year's Pig Bowl, which raised money for her cancer treatments.
SCHENECTADY — The Pig Bowl has always brought officers together, with the Schenectady Police Department squaring off against the Schenectady County Sheriff’s Department.
This year, the game will be a chance to not only compete but also to raise awareness of the mental health struggles that first responders experience.
The event starts at 6 p.m. and the game starts at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday at Union College’s Frank Bailey Field.
It’ll also raise funds for Operation At Ease, a Rotterdam-based nonprofit that works with veterans and fire responders, pairing them with rescue dogs and providing a free guided training program for post-traumatic stress and light mobility service dogs. Funds raised from the game will go toward OAE programs that’ll help first responders with post-traumatic stress, secondary trauma and other mental health issues they might face.
When the Pig Bowl tradition started several decades ago, it was a backyard football game meant to build morale between the departments. But when the tradition started to fade, Schenectady Officer Jonathan Govel and corrections Officer Jason Pollard came together to bring it back and raise money for the community while they were at it. Last year, the Pig Bowl raised funds for Ariana Mohammed, a Schenectady teen battling cancer.
The impetus behind this year’s cause stemmed from tragedies both departments have faced, including one that happened just about a year ago. During the Pig Bowl’s halftime in 2021, players on the Schenectady Police Department team received news that one of their colleagues had died by suicide. Two years prior, a member of the Sheriff’s Department had also died by suicide.
Law enforcement officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. EMS providers are 1.39 times more likely to die by suicide than the public.
So far in 2022, 135 law enforcement members in the U.S. have died by suicide according to Blue H.E.L.P., a nonprofit organization that aims to reduce mental health stigma and acknowledge the service and sacrifice of law enforcement officers lost to suicide. In 2021, there were 187 and except for a spike in 2019, the rate has remained consistent since the organization started tracking the data in 2016.
“Through your lifetime, you may have a few traumatic experiences, experiences that really shaped your life,” Govel said. “We go to work every day and that’s just what we do. Most of the time we get called, it’s not for a good thing. You’re dealing with people that don’t like you, that don’t want you to be there. You’re dealing with unsafe conditions … Your head’s always on a swivel because, especially in a busy city, you have to be observing your surroundings and alert at all times and it affects you.”
Govel and Pollard met with OAE founder Joni Bonilla earlier this year when they were considering OAE as a recipient. They spoke with her about some of the challenges law enforcement and first responders face and after that meeting, Bonilla decided to change OAE’s first responder programs.
OAE has offered service dog training for first responders for the last few years, however, relatively few had utilized the program.
“I thought, what else can we do to better support them because the service dog program isn’t supporting them,” Bonilla said.
In the coming year, OAE will hold drop-in dog training classes specifically for first responders.
“They can come with dogs that they already have in the home. There’s no doctor’s note involved,” Bonilla said.
The organization is gathering a team of volunteer social workers and licensed mental health counselors to provide free telehealth therapy in the coming year. First responders will be able to request therapy via OAE’s website and a licensed mental health counselor will pair them with a therapist.
OAE’s therapy dogs will also be available to go to first responder units and to veterans’ organizations.
Beyond raising funds to support OAE, organizers also hope the Pig Bowl raises awareness of what first responders go through. According to the CDC, many first responders feel like they can’t or shouldn’t talk about the trauma they experience on the job and perceived stigmas may stop them from reporting suicidal thoughts.
“There’s nothing normalized about the everyday struggles of first responders,” Bonilla said.
Govel has been working with his team and going through plays over the last few weeks. He won’t be able to play because of recent surgery, however, he’ll be there coaching and cheering the team on.
“I will say I’m pretty sure we’re undefeated. They never beat us,” Govel noted. He’s hoping to keep that streak, though Pollard and his team may give them a run for their money.
“We’re so grateful for Union College to let us play on the field because that makes a big difference,” said Dan DeMarco, who is helping to organize the event.
They’re hoping for a turnout of 400 to 500 people. Tickets are $5.
“It’s a good time to come out and support the local law enforcement in the community and for a greater cause than just the police departments. [There’s] the mental health [aspect] and how Joni rescues dogs. I don’t think there’s anything better than rescuing dogs and helping out with the mental health of your local law enforcement,” Govel said.
For more information visit operationatease.org
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