Safety Net sought for Cole County

A non-profit organization designed to support the wives and children of public safety personnel who have died in the line of duty is searching for people interested in supporting their cause.

Called the “Safety Net,” the new organization would provide support and financial assistance to the spouses and children of all Cole County law enforcement officers, paramedics, EMTs, corrections officers and firefighters who have lost their lives performing their duty, or who have suffered catastrophic injuries.

On Wednesday about 40 people — many who already work as public safety personnel — attended a luncheon held at the Lathrop and Gage law offices in downtown Jefferson City. The new organization is patterned after Backstoppers, a similar St. Louis organization that started in 1959.

Steve Curran, interim director of Safety Net, said the group is searching for 100 donors — to be called The Founders Club — willing to contribute $5,000 each to help the cause. Already 20 members have agreed to help, he said. “And today we’ll roll it out to the public,” he said.

Curran said he knows not everyone can afford the dues, but the organization plans to offer three- and five-year payment plans to those businesses and individuals who want to help.

Before offering his invocation, Monsignor Robert Kurwicki teased listeners by saying: “The way to do this is to pass a wicker basket ...”

Police Chief Roger Schroeder was gratified to see the effort get under way. “This is an exciting time for us because we all know of the success of the Backstoppers,” Schroeder said. “To be a part of the creation of a similar program in our community is something we all feel blessed to be a part of.”

Schroeder said while other forms of insurance might be available to families in the event of a tragedy, having a “Safety Net” makes sense, because not every family has the same needs. “The point is to fill the breach,” he said. “The only way to do that is to assess their individual needs and meet them as best you can.”

Linda Dappen, an administrator for the National Police Wives Association and whose husband is a police sergeant in Jefferson City, sees the value of creating such a network. “It’s necessary because I’ve had friends who have been injured in the line of duty. Some have died and some have lived. That’s why it means so much to me,” Dappen said.

Former St. Louis County Police Chief Ron Battelle, who now serves as the executive director of Backstoppers, was the key speaker at Wednesday’s luncheon. He said that many times other public safety agencies want information about how Backstoppers operates. “But seldom do they follow through,” he said. “I congratulate you.”

Battelle said his organization also helps “catastrophically” injured personnel — such as the police sergeant who was shot in the face and blinded and the female firefighter whose fingers were burned off in an electrical fire — with aid of up to $100,000.

With a $1 million annual budget, Backstoppers has helped 140 fallen police and fire officers over its 54-year history. The organization currently cares for 66 families, with more than 50 minors.

When a death happens, Backstoppers immediately responds with a $5,000 payment to help the family with immediate expenses. In the weeks that follow, they ask the surviving spouse to gather the paperwork on his or her financial obligations. Then, Backstoppers helps to pay off the mortgage, car payments, credit cards, etc. “Our goal is to make them debt-free,” Battelle said.

He noted the organization didn’t start out being able to do that, but gradually worked toward that goal over time.

Gus Kolilis, a retired St. Louis Police Department employee whose son, a Highway Patrol officer, was killed in the line of duty in 1988, said similar programs were helpful to his young daughter-in-law at the time. “They had not been married very long,” he said. Eventually people who wanted to help her contributed to the young woman’s scholarship fund, paying her way to college.

“The Highway Patrol was extremely helpful and supportive in every way,” he said. “It’s really a good example of what this organization can do for someone.”

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