Editor’s note: This story includes the mention of suicide and its impact on a community. If you or someone you know is suicidal, you can reach the national suicide hotline at 800-273-8255 or by dialing 988.
Among the sound of the weights clanging and the anxious chatter of the competitors, the smell of sweat and disinfectant clung to the air. Some of Marion County’s bravest men and women lined up this weekend inside the “Everyone Goes Home” gym to test their might in its annual “Bear the Burden” weightlifting competition.
The event consisted of three main categories for competitors to test their strength: back squats, bench presses and deadlifts. Each competitor paid a $20 entry fee to the Marion County Firefighter Benevolence Fund to help raise awareness for first responders’ mental health struggles.
The event organizer, Marion County Fire Rescue Chief of Health and Wellness Alex Caban, anticipated a turnout of over 50 people and predicted that the fundraiser would raise at least $1,000 for the Marion County Firefighter Benevolence Fund.
This year was especially significant to many of the competitors, most of whom are also firefighter paramedics. It has been one of the roughest years for mental health the department has faced, Caban said, as it lost two firefighter paramedic colleagues to suicide — Allen Singleton and Tripp Wooten.
“This year has been more burdensome than most,” Caban said. “Because we lost two this year, and both of them in January.”
Firefighter Paramedic Kenneth “Kenny” Haworth was one of the most determined competitors because he wasn’t just lifting for himself.
He was lifting for the brother he lost.
“The event this year means more because of what we’ve gone through as a department,” Caban said. “Guys like Kenny are here because they’re honoring their brother that they lost.”
Haworth donned a red metal bracelet while competing with Singleton’s name etched into it. The bracelet stayed on even after he removed his Marion County Fire Rescue shirt to lift the extreme weight.
Haworth lifted a total of 1,175 pounds during the event, more than anyone else that day.
“Bear the Burden” isn’t just about lifting weights for charity; it’s about bearing the burden of the trauma and stress felt by first responders who help people during their worst days.
“When someone calls 911, it’s their worst day,” said Owen Ward, the 2022 “Bear the Burden” champion and co-event organizer. “We don’t see anybody on their best day, and we show up. We try to make it better.”
Even though firefighters are some of the toughest, they are not invincible, and the stress of the job takes its toll on even the strongest people.
“The statistics show that we’ll see in a month what most people will see for their entire life as it comes to traumatic events,” Caban said. “Oftentimes dealing with those traumatic events or becoming the person you have to be to experience those traumatic events and holding that space of extreme suffering with people, it’s a much-needed component of our fire service to tell our people that number one, it’s OK not to be OK and to speak out. And number two, if you’re not OK, or if you’ve got through it, tell your story.”
While these mental health initiatives are still very new to first responders, the stigma around discussing mental health and being perceived as weak is starting to break down.
“I think that as firefighters, we were built to endure a burden,” Caban said. “That’s how we build ourselves because that’s what the job requires from us…”