‘It’s been an enormous gift’: New class teaches first responders to write about memories on the job

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Sharing emotional memories and stories from the front lines isn’t easy for first responders, but a Virginia Commonwealth University professor and best-selling author has created a writing class to teach them how to convey their experiences on paper.

The 12-week free program sponsored by the non-profit group Frontline Writers helps firefighters, EMS, police, 911 dispatchers and their families across Central Virginia reflect on the memories they collect over the course of their careers.

Running into fires, working a stressful investigation, witnessing the most painful injuries and picking up the phone on the worst day of someone’s life are just part of the job.

Dealing with these memories can often be heavy, according to retired Chesterfield Fire Captain, Kathy Kahlson.

“I had calls that I knew and I needed to write about,” Kahlson said. “Calls I would describe as the most disturbing in my career.”

Kahlson signed up after she saw an ad for the class in the paper. She immediately looked up to her husband at the kitchen table and a lightbulb went off in her head.

She signed up for the class.

At the beginning of the First Responses course, she said she was writing “benign stories” until she made the commitment to write about one that was deeply personal that involved a dead child and a mother.

“I remember when I was done with that particular class when I was done with that story — that I was done with the call,” Kahlson said. “Then I realized that I hadn’t been done with that call for 15 years until I actually wrote about it.”

“It’s been an enormous gift. This has been the biggest gift I have ever been given.”

Former Chesterfield Fire Captain Kathy Kahlson

VCU Professor David Robbins created the class to give the first responders a chance to empathize and grow by sharing their experiences with other people on the front lines.

“To watch them grow as writers and to watch them understand each other better — they all become each other’s best friends,” Robbins said.

Richmond Police Lieutenant Anthony Jackson took the course as well. He said he never thought of himself as a writer until he began to tell his stories and learned from Robbins’ lessons.

“He teaches us different writing techniques, how to make our writing cleaner,” Jackson said. “It is a writing class.”

The next class begins on January 14 and lasts through March 29.

The course meets on Mondays and Thursdays from 6:30 to 9 p.m.

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