Signal 35—Officer needs assistance. It’s a call you hope to never hear—when the rescuers need rescuing. Not only are hundreds of U.S. families impacted each year by the loss of a member of law enforcement, fire safety, or other first responder agency, thousands more face the challenge of a major health crisis or financial loss. In these times of need, a lack of funds or bureaucratic red tape can cause these heroes to face additional struggles as they seek to survive the crisis while still serving the public. While the Clay County community has always been very supportive of our first responders, we have not been immune from this gap in emergency aid. Fortunately, members of our county have stepped up and radically met this challenge.
In early February of this year, both active and retired first responders gathered with community leaders to share the news of the creation of the Signal 35 Fund. On this day, Clay County Sheriff Michelle Cook stood in a long line of people excited about the lofty goal of building in a layer of protection for our frontline heroes. Former Clay County Sheriff Rick Beseler kicked off the press conference by sharing of a pivotal lunch meeting one year earlier with Jud Sapp and Sheriff Michelle Cook. That meeting soon expanded into additional meetings, and a dream soon became reality. In a moment of irony, a train roared loudly by as Beseler introduced the Fund’s new President, Judson Sapp, CEO of W.J. Sapp & Son Railroad Contractors. Sheriff Beseler went on to recognize the other board members and to thank the elected officials in attendance for their support in this great cause.
As the former Sheriff wrapped up, he introduced Sheriff Cook to the crowd. “I want to introduce to you the best sheriff in Clay County’s history, and having been a Clay County Sheriff myself, that’s not easy for me to say.” Taken somewhat off guard by Beseler’s gracious introduction, Sheriff Cook laughed as she took the podium and shared the staggering statistics of first responders who have been killed and injured across the country. Sheriff Cook went on to share real-life and heartbreaking scenarios of men and women who have suffered through crises while still serving their community.
In the months since the Fund’s kickoff, what began as a lunch meeting has exploded into a mission of mercy laced with passion and resolve. Recently, we spoke with Nicole Hepler of the Orange Park Rotary Club. Mrs. Hepler spearheaded a club event that raised funds for the Signal 35 Fund, and she shared how pleased she was to be a part of this effort. “We are so grateful for Sheriff Cook and the Board of Signal 35, and we wanted to do what we could to support the Fund. We held a Casino Night and raised a lot of money that we know will be used to support our first responders. In the future, we hope to raise more money for the Fund.”
We also caught up with some key players on the Signal 35 Fund Board to understand their reasons for joining in this mission. Board Vice-President and legal representative Attorney John D. Horne shared that it was a conversation with Sheriff Cook that earned his trust and compelled him to serve. “As I listened to Sheriff Cook talk about the first responder who watched their home burn down and who didn’t have the funds to even find a place to stay, I knew that I needed to do what I could to make a difference. The fact that Clay County didn’t have any emergency fund for these local heroes while other surrounding counties had established funds for their people was unacceptable. We fixed that.”
Board President Judson Sapp stated, “This was such a necessary and worthwhile cause. Sheriff Cook did a great job advocating for the Fund’s creation, and the people of Clay County have risen to the occasion. In the event of an emergency, our heroes will have help available.”
If you would like to learn more about or contribute to the Signal 35 Fund, please visit www.Signal35.org