Friends of Firefighters is an amazing and vital organization that provides free mental health services to the firefighters of New York. It was started by Nancy Carbone, who had no experience in the counseling field, after 9/11 when first responders needed some help processing the tragedy and turned to her to make it happen. Since then, Friends of Firefighters has been assisting the community for almost twenty years, including through Superstorm Sandy and now the Covid pandemic.
Food Karma has been lucky to have Friends of Firefighters as a community partner and participant at many of our events. While the home kitchen is historically and stereotypically been thought of as a women’s space, the kitchen and communal cooking are tremendously important in firehouses. This focus on cooking as a unifier makes Friends of Firefighters and Food Karma natural partners. Read our interview below to learn more about Friends of Firefighters, their mission and how they got involved with Food Karma Projects. You can donate to Friends of Firefighters here.
Food Karma: When you started Friends of Firefighters, what were the most important tenets of the organization?
Nancy Carbone: We started after 9/11. I don’t have a counseling degree, that’s not my background, but I became friends with the firefighters, and they asked me if I would open a counseling place outside of the fire department so that they could go for counseling and it wouldn’t end up on their records, which, true or not, is what they believed would happen. They were reticent. They didn’t want to go to counseling, and certainly not with their employer because they thought it would end up impacting their career, and in some cases it did.
I started going to different firehouses in my car and delivering things like bunting or shoes or socks, things that we collected from communities. We would identify the firehouse that needed the items the most and bring them to the house while they were down at the site. Then I got very close with a few firehouses, one in Brooklyn Heights in particular, and they’re the ones that suggested the counseling program since they trusted me. It was right around December that they asked if I would open a place, and with absolutely no money and no place and no experience and no knowledge about counseling I said sure.
I asked a friend who had a lot of real estate if she had a place, and she had a really beat up place that had been a plastic flower shop. It was in a bad neighborhood, which was perfect for the firefighters because they wouldn’t be seen by anybody going for help, and anybody could park anywhere because at the time it was not a popular neighborhood. Firefighters came from Ground Zero to the space to gut it and turn it into a counseling center. They built it out themselves, and that to me meant that they really needed it because they showed up to do that work.
I partnered at the time with Safe Horizon, and they provided the counselors. They were great but they were not trained specifically for the fire world and the firefighters are somewhat of a tribe. After about a year or two, I thought we needed to have our own in-house counselors and that I better learn how to raise money because the rent was free the first year, but after that it was $300 a month and no one was getting paid. By a fluke, one of the widows recommended our organization to the Robin Hood Foundation, and they gave us our seed money to get started. They in turn recommended us to the Red Cross, and the Red Cross funded us for seven years.
We became more well known and started getting our numbers up, which necessitated a second location. We were operating in our first location, and four doors down we had another place that again firefighters came and renovated. In 2009, I found out there was a firehouse for rent. I knew we had to move into a firehouse or we would end up folding, primarily because the firefighters needed to go to a firehouse to feel at ease, especially when the retired and unprecedented numbers were retiring after 9/11 due to illness and for other reasons. So we rented an old firehouse in Red Hook. It had been used by a metal fabricating company and it was really a mess when we took it over. Once again, the firefighters came. This time, over 400 firefighters came in a period of two or three years to restore it to look like an old firehouse.
FK: When you moved to that space, could you expand some of your offerings?
NC: In the original space, we had one counselor and then two. They danced around each other’s schedule because in the beginning we only had one counseling room. Then we got that place four doors down, and we had a second counseling room and we had a massage therapist, which we quickly switched over to an acupuncturist, and then we also had biofeedback. In the new space we were able to offer all of that but then we expanded and we had three counselors.
FK: How big is your organization?
NC: The staff started as just me. It grew when we got the first place, but there were many times when I heard crickets all day and the phone didn’t ring, which was okay because we didn’t have counselors yet though I was busy facilitating donated trips for the families. We kept growing but after Sandy, it exploded. We have an acupuncturist and we offer biofeedback, we have outreach and communications, a clinical supervisor and an office manager. We also have a lot of volunteer firefighters in the house running the place. Part of healing for some firefighters is not going to counseling: it’s swinging a hammer, it’s giving back, it’s hanging out with the other firefighters and talking.
Right now, we have almost 100 people in counseling, which is a lot though it’s going to be higher through Covid. Covid has put them all through the ringer.
After Sandy hit, we got a grant from the state and we opened up seven places and they were all used. We have whittled that back due to budgetary constraints, but we recently hired another counselor and her schedule is already full. Since Covid, our numbers have exploded and we have a lot of people in therapy. We need to hire yet another counselor, so the services are definitely being used by the members and their families.
FK: Have you moved everything online during the pandemic?
NC: We actually moved online in January of 2020. I really would love to say I had a crystal ball, but in January we switched over to a HIPAA compliant teletherapy platform in order to expand our reach to both active and retired firefighters and their families.
Our last day in the firehouse was March 12th. We were hosting a breakfast at the firehouse, which the firefighters held every month on the second Wednesday of the month. That day we had a nice full house, and that night I found out that one of the guests had Covid. Almost immediately, five of our members got sick, one of them so badly that he was on a respirator for several weeks. It was just devastating. I closed the firehouse on March 13th and we have been remote since then.
I would rather err on the side of being too cautious then to jump and say we can handle this because I don’t think we can. In the interim, two of our dearest volunteers, one of whom started FoF with me, Tony Catapano and Billy Hodgens both passed away from 9/11 cancer, so we’re really hurting right now, everybody’s hurting right now.
FK: What have you learned about the organization during this time?
NC: I learned that we are very important to the members, and we’re important to each other. Some of us got Covid, and we were very supportive to the others. I had 7 people in my family get sick, 3 of them critical, and my staff was amazing, calling me every day. We supported each other this year it like a close family would. Being able to see how everybody stepped up to the plate and took care of the firefighters that called and immediately needed help, I always felt very good about our staff. Our staff are extraordinary human beings and they really are so good at what they do, but they also go the extra mile because they’ll sit and listen, nobody ever looks at their watch, nobody ever says, “we’ll put you on a waitlist.”
We have always had disaster plans. We didn’t talk about pandemics as such, but we did talk about chemical attacks and things of that nature. I told my staff to get out of the city in the event of a disaster and we would reconvene after. That’s basically what we did. I had never heard of Zoom before this, and we never missed a beat because we got right onto Zoom for our meetings.
We have staff meetings every week and we have people like Jimmy Carbone who’s just a cheerleader from beyond. We’re not seeing each other, but he actually did have an event in Staten Island that was very successful. We’re just so proud to be connected to him because he has such heart and that’s what we believe in.
FK: Are there people who are done with counseling but are still involved with the organization?
NC: Yes, absolutely. It is heartening that, when someone comes to us in a crisis, over time you are witness to their recovery. Eventually, many of them return to volunteer their services to give back. When asked by our most senior volunteer what skills a a particular firefighter could bring to FoF, he said he didn’t have many but knew how to sweep. Once he felt more comfortable, he began to paint the doors around the firehouse. Eventually, he even started to sign his work. He would paint a door red and then in a little corner with black magic marker write his name. That told me he belonged, so it was much more than just something sweet. He’s taking ownership, he’s feeling a part of it enough to write his name on it. To get 400 firefighters to rebuild a place they have to believe in what you’re doing, whether they need the help or not, they see somebody else that needs the help.
FK: Is the house fully restored or is there more to do?
NC: The firefighters will tell you it will never be done because everybody comes in with an idea. There are things we would like to see done that aren’t done yet. One firefighter, who has passed away since, started the stairs. He wanted to paint the back steps all the way up. There are little projects, the ceiling upstairs really needs some repair, so there are things that can and should be changed. It’s a living, breathing place. Someone will come in and say they want to paint a mural, that’s one thing, but there are other more pressing issues like plumbing. We’re below sea level so the street sewer backs up into our building sometimes and we end up having to pay to take care of it. It was the agreement with the landlord when we moved in, but I didn’t realize it would back up once a year, which is a pain. We want to accommodate the guys who come in with ideas for the firehouse but we also have to maintain what we have, and that can be a challenge in a building that is over 140 years old.
FK: What are you looking forward to in the future?
NC: I’m looking forward to everybody being able to see each other again. I want to have the stability of the organization so that when it comes time for me to step down it’s an easy transition. My staff can step in, I know that, but the burden of raising money is a heavy burden. We are all working towards fiscal sustainability- not just for the next five years, but in perpetuity because firefighters will always put themselves on the line. For hundreds of years, that’s what firefighters have done. When they experience a tragedy or trauma they need a place to offload. One guy who is a local firefighter to our house said, “I really love having you guys up the street. I haven’t used you, but it’s like having insurance: I know you’re there and I feel safer.” That to me was a little bit of an eye opener, I hadn’t thought of it that way.
FK: Have you been approached to share your model or expand your program?
NC: Absolutely. We have been asked to share our model in several cities around the country. It wasn’t clear how we could accomplish that, given the geographic challenges and specific differences that might not translate. I wasn’t sure how to expand nationally or finance such an endeavor. During Covid I have had the luxury of staying in one place. Prior to closing the firehouse and moving our services to online, I had been living primarily in the city and commuting home for weekends. Once I was in one place, I was able to think through the possibilities of expansion with my board and we are exploring those..
FK: How did FoF get involved with Food Karma events in the first place?
NC:A retired firefighter met Jimmy at an event where Jimmy was cooking. He came back to us, telling us how “awesome” Jimmy was. He had also filled Jimmy in on who we are, and Jimmy just jumped right in. That’s how we initially met. I like it when it works that way because it’s already been vetted by the firefighters. Jimmy just by himself, he’s just got such a wonderful way so I was thrilled, I feel like I’ve known him forever.
FK: How do the firefighters who cook at the events get chosen?
NC: The kitchen is the heart and soul of every firehouse, and the food is very important. The kitchen table is where they review all of the fires and share a camaraderie. Some guys laugh and say, “We have our own counseling center, it’s the kitchen table. As long as you’re not looking for good advice you’ll find it there.” Cooking is really important to firefighters, and there are some cooks in the firehouses that just stand out above all the rest. Every year we have a Fall event where we have about 15-20 firehouses involved with cooking. All of the firehouses bring their specialty dish and they serve it at our event. That’s the pool that we pulled from to cook at Jimmy’s events.
FK: Is there anything we haven’t touched on that you would like to share?
NC: I just wanted to take a minute to thank Jimmy for his vision and his generosity. He blows me away. I think it’s really important that he brings our mission to the front. It isn’t just, “Isn’t this cool we’ve got a bunch of firefighters here.” He really gets why we have to exist.