A former Augusta convent could become Georgia's first treatment center for first responders, if the Hale Foundation gets city approval.
The foundation, which operates the downtown men's substance abuse treatment center Hale House, proposed several years ago to open a south Augusta center at a wooded former convent at the edge of Green Meadows subdivision. The plan encountered immediate resistance from neighbors, and the Augusta Commission in May failed to pass a zoning exception to allow it.
Now a 2018 state House Bill sponsored by two local legislators promises funding support for a center for first responders at the site, Foundation Director Cliff Richards said.
House Bill 703, whose sponsors include Evans Rep. Jodi Lott and Hephzibah Rep. Gloria Frazier, passed the House and Senate unanimously and provided $1.5 million to create the Governor's Office of Public Safety Support, for the sole purpose of providing "peer support and mental health services" to Georgia first responders, Richards said.
The bill came about after Lott met with area law enforcement officers already raising private funds to teach others how to provide the care, and "quickly became nationally recognized for our state's willingness to de-stigmatize the mental health needs of first responders and to dramatically offer a solution," he said.
One of the officers, Patrick Cullinan with the Southern States Police Benevolent Association, said he knew first-hand the struggles police, firefighters and paramedics face with PTSD, thoughts of suicide and substance abuse and entered a recovery program himself in 2003.
Cullinan said he'd been "scared to death" he would lose his career if he asked for help but instead, he was able to turn his life around completely.
Seeing Richards turned down by city officials, Cullinan said he realized the convent property could be perfect for an inpatient facility and contacted Richards.
Right now Georgia first responders who need inpatient care are sent to a treatment facility in Alabama, he said. The Alabama center provides the care but is not dedicated to first responders, he said.
Such a center in Augusta would be a first and a model for the nation, he said.
"We'll put Augusta on the map as the place to send the helpers to get help," Cullinan said.
The need is great, he said, as those arriving first on the scene cope with the violence and injury they often encounter.
The Augusta facility would likely be a mix of responders with PTSD, mental health concerns, substance abuse or a combination and not exclusively substance abuse, he said.
Augusta Sen. Harold Jones, who grew up in Green Meadows and represents the area, said neighbors remain opposed to any zoning change that significantly alters the character of their neighborhood and wonder why it remains under pursuit by people who don't live anywhere near the area.
"I would continue to hope the commission would align with the wishes of the neighborhood and the positions of elected officials who actually represent that district and neighborhood," he said.
Hale had agreed to create a new entrance not bordering the neighborhood by the Richmond County Career Technical Magnet School. If the foundation overcomes neighborhood resistance and secures the rezoning it needs, it would then have to work with the school board to obtain the property.