Spokane County Fire District 4 has been hosting gatherings for local veterans and first responders since November, bringing together people interested in getting to know others with similar backgrounds over coffee or pizza.
Called Heroes Connect, the group meets for coffee every third Friday of the month from 8:30 to 10 a.m. at Station 41 at 315 E. Crawford St. in Deer Park. There’s also an evening gathering from 5:30 to 7 p.m. the first Wednesday of every month, where pizza and camaraderie are on the menu, also at Station 41. The group is open to retired and current people who serve in the military, law enforcement, EMS, fire service and emergency medical fields. Dispatchers are also welcome.
Group organizer Ryan Finnegan, who volunteers to drive a 3,000-gallon water tender for District 4, said the goal is to create a community among those who have shared experiences serving others in front line positions.
“We wanted to provide a program to give them a place to go,” Finnegan said.
Finnegan, a Marine Corps veteran, said he came up with the idea last year and discussed it with District 4’s chaplain. With his enthusiastic support, Finnegan took his idea to Fire Chief Bill Neckels.
“I got 30 seconds into it with the chief and he was on board,” he said.
It was originally envisioned to be for veterans only, but Finnegan quickly realized that many veterans have gone on to join law enforcement or the fire service and so the reach was expanded.
“It was a way to get them to know they’re not alone,” he said.
The people who come to the gatherings have a shared experience in their service. They’ve typically seen bad things during that service and don’t need to talk about it to know that the shared experience is there, Finnegan said. In fact, most of the discussions that take place over coffee or pizza are about everyday things like skiing or camping, not their work.
“Don’t come and talk about work,” he said. “Come and talk about life. If it is a service story, it’s generally a funny one.”
Finnegan had originally envisioned more structured gatherings, with presentations from groups who offer programs and services to veterans. But that quickly went by the wayside.
“It just turned into a mingle session,” he said. “It’s very laid back, very informal.”
Don McConnell, a retired Army major, has lived in District 4 for the last decade. He first came to know and be impressed by the firefighters and paramedics serving in the district when he had to call an ambulance to his home when his service-related back injury became aggravated. Then last fall he saw a social media post about Heroes Connect and thought he’d go.
“I thought they’d be good people to know,” McConnell said. “This is the first time I’ve ever done anything like that. I’m not a member of any veterans group.”
He has attended every gathering since it began. He said it’s nice to be able to talk to others who have also served. He noted that military service affects everyone differently, depending on what they’ve done or where they’ve been, and some are more reluctant to talk about it than others.
“We have a shared experience,” he said. “It’s understood. I’m just impressed with the people I’ve met there.”
Finnegan said the number of people coming to the gatherings has been growing. The evening socials started this month and the Greater Spokane Elks Lodge 228 has agreed to provide pizza for the evening gatherings.
“They saw the value in it and invested in us,” he said.
Finnegan said he hopes the group continues to grow and be able to provide a social outlet for those who have or are serving in some way. He enjoys seeing people meet and have good conversations.
“You leave at the end of the hour, hour and 15 minutes and you just feel better,” he said.
For more information about Heroes Connect, email firstname.lastname@example.org.