Grahame Jones, executive director of the 100 Club Central Texas, joins us to discuss the importance of being vulnerable and focusing on mental health as a leader.

Transcript

Craig Weaver: Welcome to Response Leadership, a podcast brought to you by the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service, a leader in response training. We are a podcast bringing you leadership expertise from the top minds in emergency response. I’m your host, Craig Weaver, I work in communications at TEEX. And today, our guest is Grahame Jones, the executive director for the 100 Club Central Texas, so people know what you have done.  

Grahame Jones: Sure. First, thanks for having me today and traveling to Austin, I appreciate it and making it easy on everyone. But yes, I have worked with Texas Parks and Wildlife for about 27 years. I started off over in East Texas and that is where I met Alisa, and I have known her for a long time. Good friend and just worked through the ranks of Parks and Wildlife and retired in 2020, as a director of law enforcement. And always something that really interested me along the way was consistency, training, education. I think that goes together, obviously, with TEEX. 

Craig Weaver: What do you do now? 

Grahame Jones: I am the executive director for the 100 Club of Central Texas, and we are an organization, a nonprofit that supports the families of first responders during critical incidents, including line of duty deaths or injury. And so, we support the actual first responders when they are injured critically, or we support the families if there has been a death.  

Craig Weaver: How did you get here?  

Grahame Jones: That is a good question. It was just a culmination of a lot of doors opening. And I had an interest in the 100-club growing up in Houston.  The club in Houston is very well known and it goes back to the 1950s. And, you know, you are very aware of the club in Houston.  

Craig Weaver: It has a big presence. Yeah, I grew up seeing it, not knowing what it was, but it is undeniable. 

Grahame Jones: Exactly. And ultimately when I transferred to Austin in the early 2000s, I volunteered for the club here and worked on the board and spent a lot of time volunteering for it, for the organization. And then when I retired from Parks Wildlife in 2020, this job was open, and it just seemed like a natural fit. I was going through a lot in 2020 also, and so it was a great way. I mean, you think about how by happenstance or whatever, doors just sometimes open and this one did it is an absolute honor to be here and work for the 100 Club. It is where I need to be.  

Craig Weaver: What would you say is the biggest challenge you face in your current position? 

Grahame Jones: Awareness is a huge issue for us. Looking at the public as far as the public goes and the public being aware of what a 100 club is. And then also as far as the first responder community goes, there is lots of first responders that have no idea what the 100 club does. That’s not their fault. That’s our fault. That’s something that just we’ve sometimes just have not gotten the message out as we should have.  I talked to William Skeen, who is the executive director down in Houston, and he said the same thing. For example, if there’s a first responder that’s been injured. We’re always very conscious of how we approach them and what we what we do initially is just financial support. Right. However, we deliver that check to that first responder, a lot of times they’ll be like, well, I’m not a member or am I supposed to be a member? I must be like, it’s not about you being a member. It’s about us serving you. It’s about the members serving you.  

And so just that awareness is a big challenge for us. And getting the word out, I think, especially with this generation, both of residents of Central Texas and with first responders, it’s just a little different then how it it’s been in years past as far as our marketing approach and how we how we sell the name of the organization.  

Craig Weaver: How do you do that? First, it seemed strange for me to hear that there are first responders that don’t know. What do you do to get the word out in that community? 

Grahame Jones: We do a multifaceted approach. Social media, conventional media, we have a great relationship with some of our media partners here in town that will once again, it’s not ever trying to sell our organization in the time of a tragedy. We’re very conscious about that. But they do, I think, help to make the public aware of the 100 Club when there is a tragedy. Again, we’re a membership-based organization and we can’t do what we do without members, without financial support. And so, again, we utilize social media. We have events and fundraising throughout the year. We have an award ceremony, which is fantastic. I think it’s a way to recognize the good work that first responders are doing. And I think it’s a great way to highlight the great work, the heroism, that these first responders are doing every day. 

And so that helps. And then we have scholarships, too. In fact, we just got a large donation from a donor, from Jim Ore and DeeDee Ore who own GT distributors. And they just gave us $125,000. It’s going to be utilized specifically for first responder training, and continuing education. And so that’s a big deal. Again, we can see how education and training is related to success and safety and just more professionalism and it goes full circle.  

Alisa Mcdonald: So, my question would be, do you ever run into situations where people are requesting resources from 100 club that you can’t provide? 

Grahame Jones: Yeah, absolutely. I think that, you know, our focus, the mission of the 100 Club, the bottom line what we do every day is initially financial support. So, when something when something happens, a tragedy occurs, a line of duty death or a critical injury, we try to get that financial support to that family or to that first responder. A lot of times the same day, if not the next day. Now, again, as I said, we’re very conscious of how every situation is different. So that’s our primary focus. And of course, long term, we provide what I call emotional support, but it’s just maintaining a connection to that family on Father’s Day or Mother’s Day or holidays. We touch base with the families, will send them a card. We’ll send those kids graduation check when they graduate from high school. We keep in touch with them. But with that said, there’s times when we are asked to support a situation that we can’t either because it’s our bylaws or a financial restraint. Of course, we’re going to achieve our mission. We’re going to take care of those line of duty deaths and those injuries. But we are receiving more inquiries about mental health needs.  

And I think it is something that, you know, our board has discussed. I think there’s a lot of ways someone can be injured. And I think that normalizing that as we move forward and recognizing that as are other organizations and agencies beginning to as well, I think it certainly would be something that we’re headed in the right direction in addressing. 

Alisa Mcdonald: So, a mental health disorder as an injury that occurred because of the job or even suicide as it relates to line of duty death? 

Grahame Jones: Oh, I think that my personal belief is that certainly suicide in many cases would qualify as a line of duty death. And I know of examples where it has, I think that agencies in the public are starting to recognize that as well. If you’re I’d go to get a heart scan tomorrow, we consider that normal. Well, that’s physical health. And physical health is important. But as I mentioned, there’s a lot of ways to be injured. And I think normalizing the need for mental health awareness and for mental health helps when someone needs it. I think we’re also setting that person up to succeed long term. And to just be a more well-rounded, healthy individual. 

Alisa Mcdonald: Yeah. And it makes a difference for the first responder but also their spouse children. 

Craig Weaver: Are you seeing the tide turn in terms of mental health coming out into the light, is there a stigma attached to it? 

Grahame Jones: There’s certainly a stigma attached to it. I think there’s less of a stigma than when I went to work. I was going to talk about this at some point today. We had talked earlier, and we would briefly talk about mentor mentors. I still have mentors. There are people that mentor me every day, right, that I look up to of all ages. But there was one that I really go back to was John Fuller, deputy sheriff, and we had responded together to several situations that I would consider to be traumatic to some degree difficult situations to deal with. One of them was a very serious traffic accident. And I was young. I mean, I’d been working for less than a year. At that time with Parks and Wildlife, there was no FTO program. There certainly wasn’t any counseling or anything. And so, he wanted to talk to me about it. 

He knew what I was going through because he had been there early on. And so, he normalized that for me. Of course, when he asked me if I wanted to talk about it, I said no because I thought that’s what you’re supposed to do. But over but over time I saw the value and that has certainly helped me. And I think being socialized early on as a first responder, not just in law enforcement, EMS, EMT, firefighters, dispatchers, the whole gamut, I think being socialized early to understand and just to make it normal. Along with that, other being healthy exercise, you know, relationship health, all these things, they were all pieces of the puzzle. 

Craig Weaver: I can Imagine vulnerability is not something that’s readily there, but it’s good that its changing as you said.  

Grahame Jones: Being vulnerable as a leader is the most important aspect. It also makes the leader relatable. I’m say a leader, I’m not saying supervisor because there’s certainly a difference. I see being very vulnerable is the opposite of being arrogant. We learn a lot from all types of supervisors. We learn from good ones; we learn from bad ones. I have learned from good and bad and tried to adapt to some of that. The leaders that I respected did make themselves vulnerable. I think listening is also hugely important, but it’s the ones that like to accept the blame and then give credit to someone else. Those are the ones that I tried to emulate. 

Alisa Mcdonald: You’re talking about arrogance and still, you know, if you’re looking at it from my perspective as a mental health professional. Those are the people that I like to have in counseling because I’m like, that’s just a defense mechanism. So, let’s peel the onion and find a new way. 

Craig Weaver: You said earlier, you know, we talked before this, and you had mentioned the concept of having one’s bucket full. Talk a little bit about that. 

Grahame Jones: Yeah, I mean, someone early on mentioned the whole bucket concept to me. It might have even been in a training scenario that it came up. We all have our personal buckets, right? And we have about what keeps you up at night. Finances, Relationships, work, stress, all these variables. And then you add on some of the things that first responders are dealing with on a day-to-day basis. And you could put in one traumatic event or multiple traumatic events, over time, all these things add up and circle in that bucket up. 

To me, it’s not how do you empty the bucket? How do you keep the bucket empty? To me, it’s just how do you keep it from overflowing. There must be a drain on there at a level. That somehow keeps it from overflowing, which is what it overflows. Bad things happen. And so, I think that whether it’s maintained just a healthy lifestyle, exercise, eating right, friends, friendships and again, something that helped me in my whole career was maintaining a group of friends outside of the first responder. Within certainly within, but also outside. So, we are not just going, as Joseph Wambaugh wrote about, you’re not just going to choir practice after work with a bunch of other first responders. I’m not minimizing the relationship with first responders. That’s hugely important, but it’s a piece of it. But having a confidant to talk about what you’re going through, I mean, how many times have you heard someone say, well, I’m not going to bring my work home? 

 I mean, my brother-in-law is a doctor. He’s I’ve heard him say, I’m not going to bring my work home. So, it’s not just first responders, but I certainly didn’t bring my work home. I didn’t talk about it. My wife would ask me, “Do you want to talk about it No, I don’t want to talk about it.”  I don’t want to bring you into this world. That’s probably not the best idea. It’s not that I’ve done everything right, because I certainly have it. But it’s how you can try to make things better. And if we can learn and pass that along to others, I think we’re doing the best we can. But part of keeping that bucket from overflowing is mental health awareness. Some of it, I think, is the responsibility of the agency through policies and procedures to do where there are certain switches that occur at certain times. To where if X, Y, Z happens, it’s mandated. I don’t know how you feel about that Alisa.  

If that’s the current way of thinking or if the volunteer scenario is always better, I don’t know that, but I just know that a lot of people, if it’s optional, aren’t going to do it. Example would be a traumatic event involving like, let’s say, a shooting. Well, that’s mandatory at party Parks and Wildlife guy. And I’m proud to have been a piece of that. It wasn’t my decision, but it was a piece of it. I was a part of that discussion. And so, again, it’s not just those big events, they can be over time. It can be smaller events that add up or what I’ve noticed is the time period can be different. Let’s just take post-traumatic stress, whatever we perceive that as being. And I know there’s a clinical definition for it, but just what I’ve seen, I think that scenario A might affect one officer a certain way or a firefighter, EMT, EMS, and it might affect another officer a different way. And there may be a delayed reaction. I’ve seen that delayed reaction many, many times. And it’s difficult for me to explain because I’m not a professional in the mental health world. But I’ve certainly seen it. And when you can see it over time, you can see it weighs so heavy. Then how do you get that person the help that they need? 

Craig Weaver: How do you do that?  

Alisa McDonald: I certainly think that there’s an advantage of making that requirement for them to see somebody. However, you’ve got to be careful about what you’re making people do, especially in law enforcement. Yeah. But I do think it does a couple of things. 

First, it demystifies what a counseling session is. You’re not going to have to lie on your couch. Get to know each other. And I think sometimes it demystifies what that whole process is like. People have a preconceived idea of what it’s going to be. That’s a good process of them having to see someone like me specialize in first responder mental health. But I will say there’s also a huge advantage in having specially trained peers who have walked the walk, have had the lived experience, but they’ve done their own work, but they’ve also had an opportunity to get specialized training on how to best help a peer. And so, I think that’s a good middle ground for them to be able to do that. And those peers can also share their experience about having a relationship with a mental health professional and the advantages. And so, I think that that’s a good piece too. I would love to say yes, mandate them all to come right and just one time, I’m not sure that’s super realistic, but I think it’s a good suggestion. 

Grahame Jones: I think that team is fantastic. Having individuals trained within an agency. At parks and wildlife, we had a critical incident team, of course we leaned on DPS a lot as well with their counselors we don’t have we don’t have certified counselors, but we have the team that is well trained and they go around the state, depending on the scenario situation, to help their fellow officers. They identify something that needs to get up the ladder a little bit. But I think that’s a fantastic idea. And we’ve certainly seen the advantages of that.  

Alisa Mcdonald: At TEEX, we’re developing an internal peer team, it’s not just law enforcement or fire heavy, but is a universal group that we’re training internally but at some point, can be deployed. But what they’re going to do is if Parks and Wildlife had a critical incident where your team was deployed, we are going to be there to support your team. So, I think what a lot of team’s kind of mess up on is they forget to take care of the people who are taking care of people. That’s something we’re going to develop that we can utilize at some point. It’s easy for those critical incident teams or peer teams to get overwhelmed. 

Craig Weaver: Yeah, what good are you for anybody else? And I keep wanting to jump in and say when we talked before about how first responder trauma is different. And that was very interesting to me. How do y’all feel about this?  

Alisa Mcdonald: Well, I mean, I think it has to do with cultural competence. I think, you know, counselors are always required to take a certain amount of continuing educational cultural competence. But unfortunately, you know, we have all these subcultures we must consider which law enforcement, fire, first responders, that’s a different subculture and the thinkings are a little bit different. And you can have a counselor that’s very well trained and well versed in trauma. And I put that quote, air quotes and understanding of the fight, flight freeze response and all those things in the way neurobiology and the way the brain works. However, when it comes to first responders, their response is different. So as a firefighter, as a police officer if you freeze, you die. 

That part of how you respond to things is eliminated. So, you’re operating on reactionary 24 seven. And so, it takes a counselor who’s been specifically specially trained in first responder trauma to really be effective and understand that. And again, if I’m speaking to a police officer who believes that I don’t understand the culture, it’s going to be very hard for the two of us to have a therapeutic relationship.  

Grahame Jones: I agree with everything that you said, and I think socially, by definition, first responders mean the first ones that are right. So, we think about we’re on family vacation and going to drive to Disneyland, and traffic is backed up, and suddenly, we drive on this wreck, you’re seeing it, and everyone’s rubbernecking and looking around. And what goes through our minds is that we hope those people are okay. That’s every day for first responders. The first responders are the fixers, the ones you call when you need help and the ones that are there to diffuse the situation or put out the fire. And so, when they can’t, that’s the burden. And so, what should I’ve done differently? What if I’d gotten there faster? You add on, okay, well, we all know that if there is a shooting or use of force, there is still going to be an investigation, as there should be. 

And so that’s the added stress as well. You have all these stressors, variables that add up to make it different. And there’s other lines of work that certainly have stress. I’m not taking that away from anyone. But this is intense and it’s real and it’s reoccurring. So, when the fixer can’t fix it, that’s something that they are carrying around. That’s what makes it different in a lot of ways.  

Alisa Mcdonald: You know, the first responders and especially some of the older ones that it’s like muscle memory on how they respond to things. And then it trickles over into their personal lives. And this is how they respond to things. And they don’t even have the realization they’re struggling. I share with both of you on our meeting that we had before about the retired firefighter chief that said, “I never had any issues. I don’t know. I’m just more resilient than most.” 

And then later in our conversation, he talks about his fourth wife. He may not have realized, or it wasn’t the job that was the reason that he had four wives. But, you know, I can assume that it played a role. And he had no awareness of it.  

Grahame Jones: That’s a great point with the fixer thing, too. By being the fixer, you must be able to turn that off, too. And you can’t always do that because you want to fix everything. You want to fix stuff at home, you want to fix stuff with your friends. And sometimes people want to work out their own problems. They don’t want you jumping in there trying to fix everything all the time. I have personally struggled with that because you can’t always fix things and some you shouldn’t fix anyways. Some situations just must work themselves out. Especially, you know, at home or with friends or whatever. So, that’s another switch that you must sometimes adjust if you can’t turn it off. 

Craig Weaver: You mentioned how important it is to be vulnerable. How important would you say it is to listen? 

Grahame Jones: I mean, listening is listening is huge. And I think that is what really defines leadership to me. You can’t relate, if you don’t know the story or your people’s story or the folks at work with you or your friends, even, you can’t relate. You must listen and adjust. I have a friend, a good friend that I text with all the time and have had some deep conversations with him. But when I’m around him, I want to listen to him because he’s fascinating. It’s a good friend of mine, Kevin Russell. It’s not that I don’t necessarily want to talk a whole lot. 

I’m just fascinated with what he has to say. So, I’m listening. But I think the key is to listen to everyone.  Even the agency, the nonbelievers or the ones that haven’t bought into you being in the position that you are. But you’ve got to hear them out. You must give them a voice, too. You can’t just shut them off and you should give them a good, honest debate. If someone is being cynical and disrupting the flow of the agency and socializing new recruits in that cynical mindset. A perfect example could be trying to normalize mental health counseling. Such as people saying “Oh, we don’t need that. You know, that’s ridiculous. Stick with me. I’ll show you how to get through that.” We’ve all seen those scenarios. That needs to be dealt with. 

 You could do that by simply hearing them out, figuring out the why. Why do they think that give them an opportunity and listen to what they are saying, and you may not agree with it, and they may not agree with you, but I think it does create some mutual respect. If you take time to listen to folks and support staff, even the person sweeping the floor and the lowest paid employee, the agency is giving them a voice and hearing them out. That is important, too.  

Alisa Mcdonald: Well, and they may be able to give you more feedback. 

Grahame Jones: Oh, yes. I have learned so much from people in those positions.  

Alisa Mcdonald: Yes, with active listening skills, it is the ability to be quiet and hear what people are saying, but also hear what they are not saying. And so sometimes, people might give you code or different symbol symbolic meaning of certain things. And you need to be able to listen and decipher that. So, there are going to be a lot of leaders, especially first responder leaders, who hear this, and it may be a new leader. And so, are there any tidbits of lessons learned, the things you would have liked to have done differently during your leadership that you would like to add? 

Grahame Jones: Yeah, I think one of the most leaders must be willing to have those debates, hard conversations, and listen to feedback, even if it is not what they want to hear. But at the end of the day, you must be able to build and create your team in the way that someone hired you to do. You have been trusted and empowered to move that agency forward. And it may not always be easy to talk about, but you must not be afraid to build your team. And if at the end of the day, if there’s someone that’s in a position of responsibility, senior staff level, that is not willing to get on board, then you’ve got to make that tough decision and have that conversation with them, either, you know, to lead, follow or really get out of the way. 

 And it sounds callous, but it is the health of the agency that is hinging on that, and it bleeds down, and people are watching. You must have that freedom and not be afraid to have those hard discussions. The other thing I would say is just to be open to other ideas and other suggestions and do your best to explain why. And when Darwin was writing The Survival of the Fittest and he was creating his thesis and he was thinking about all of that, agree or disagree with his perspective, it’s fascinating because what he did is he would he reviewed that in a way that before he made his public address and released his thesis he went through it and picked out what he thought the critics would look at in and maybe even the cynics and how they would pick it apart. 

So, in his mind, he pre answered those questions. And so, in a way, he explained that proactively. We must explain why, as we cannot make a sweeping agency-wide decision, as I said so does not work anymore. We must explain why, and in that is that vulnerability and that listening and these other aspects that we have talked about, is all contained in that. 

Alisa Mcdonald: And even humility. We make mistakes even as a leader and as a parent, too, being able to say, “I could have done that differently. I agree that I have made a mistake. And so let me tell you what we are going to do to fix it.”  

Grahame Jones: I think flexibility too. For example, we made this decision that we are all going to wear this uniform, right? This is the uniform. Well, okay, a piece of it does not work. So, let us be flexible enough to a, adjust it to it is not 100% of what that initial decision was, but it turns out to be 75 or 70 or 80%. It is not a failure. You are just being flexible. Yes, that is the key to continue evolving. 

 Craig Weaver: What would you say is the most rewarding part of your job?  

Grahame Jones: The most rewarding aspect at Parks and Wildlife was being around folks that really cared. The far majority talking about, 95 90%, feel this way, and there are some that do not, and they have no business being first responders. I have been very vocal about that. But the majority, 95% plus, are good, honest, hardworking people that are in it for the right reasons. And so being around them and their dedication and their level of service still inspires me every day. Now at the 100 Club it is being an honor to serve families that have made extreme sacrifices. The first responders themselves and the family both have made these sacrifices. 

The friends have made the sacrifices as well, because either again, as a as an injury or, God forbid, as a as a line of duty death. I mean, that is as heavy as it gets. Right. When you show up on that front porch and knock on the door or meet at the funeral home or wherever it may be, and you are delivering that check, it is not about the money. The money helps. It helps with some immediate needs. There are going to be state and federal benefits that kick in down the road. But this is immediate because they may have to fly family in, they have bills that are that are coming due tomorrow. And so, it helps. But it is just that that support just them knowing that there is organization and a group of folks out there that care. To me, being able to serve the first responder community and the families is by far the most rewarding aspect of my job is just being there.  And it comes in a lot of ways. We have gotten some large donations recently. We have donors that give a lot of money, but we also get a check, a handwritten envelope with $2 in it. You know and it is hugely important. And it is like, what did that $2 mean to that person that sent it? So again, there are a lot of ways that it manifests, but just being a part of this big picture of what we do is very, very rewarding. Selfishly, it is a way to stay, you know, engaged with the first responder community. 

Alisa Mcdonald: I am glad to know that you guys have a long-term response, because I have worked with families who have lost people in the line of duty death, and I feel like there is a lot of attention initially, then everybody just goes away. And so, I am glad you guys do that too.  

Craig Weaver: Thank you so much for being here.  

Grahame Jones: Thank you all for coming. This has been an honor and a privilege to be on the podcast. And I really appreciate everything TEEX does.  

Craig Weaver: Thanks for listening to Response Leadership brought to you by Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service. New episodes will be released on the fourth Tuesday of each month. Follow us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to podcasts or visit teex.org/podcast. 

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