Jamie Holmes never worried about managing her family's finances, maintaining the yard or the family's cars. The self-described "Suzie Homemaker" relied on her husband, Paul, a firefighter/paramedic in Douglas County, GA, to handle those tasks while she focused on raising their young daughter and making their house a loving and comfortable home. When he died in the line of duty on Dec. 28, 2009, the life she knew was turned upside down.
With her family in another state and what felt like a limited support system, Holmes had to figure things out on her own. For more than a year, she faced many challenges. "I didn't do the bills. I didn't fix things around the house or work on the car. I didn't take care of any of those kinds of things," she said. "It was a really big wake-up call, trying to figure out how to do it all."
In October of 2010, Holmes and members of her family attended the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend to honor Paul's memory. She said she immediately felt welcomed by everyone there. During the weekend, she learned about the annual Survivors Conference in San Antonio the following spring.
"The Foundation recognized that the survivors could benefit from an event away from the Memorial Weekend that would be more relaxed and bring together new families as well as those who may have suffered a loss years ago," said Linda Hurley, director of Survivor Programs with the NFFF.
The first Fire Service Survivors Conference was held in 2006 in Greenbelt, MD, in conjunction with the Congressional Fire Service Institute (CFSI) annual meeting and dinner. The days were filled with support workshops and programs to assist the attendees and evening events that allowed them to get to know each other in a casual setting.
After the third annual conference in Greenbelt, the Foundation decided to change locations each year to make it more accessible for survivors from around the country. "We wanted to give our families an opportunity to go someplace new and different, and have a chance to network with others who had experienced a similar loss," said Hurley.
The Foundation also understood that the firefighter who died was most often the primary earner, and the expense of coming to the Washington, DC, area every year could be financially difficult for many survivors.
The conference, which includes all the workshop and activities, is free. Through a grant from the Department of Justice and support from Motorola Solutions and Tyco International, lodging and meals are provided. This funding allows NFFF to also assist with some transportation costs.
"I didn't have a clue what the conference would be like and didn't know what to expect, but I decided to go and see if it would help," Jamie said.
She described what she experienced at the conference as a life saver.
"The workshops I attended gave me confidence to attempt things I wouldn't normally do," she said. From counseling sessions to classes on financial management, she felt stronger and better about herself. She also felt more empowered to help her little girl deal with her feelings.
But even more than the information she got from the workshop, Holmes said the opportunities to talk with other survivors made a profound difference.
"I'm a very independent person," she explained. "But as I talked with other survivors and heard about their experiences, I was more willing to open myself up. I realized I can ask for help and we can lean on each other."
Most importantly, she explained, she realized no one at the conference was judgmental about anything she said. Until attending the conference in 2011, Holmes said she didn't feel like she had a safe outlet to express her sadness about her husband's death or her concerns for her daughter and how she would cope.
At the Survivors Conference, it was different. "You can say I'm sad. You can say I miss my husband and so many other things. You feel like you're finally in your own skin."