'We are here to save lives': Local nonprofit brings help to struggling first responders

IREDELL COUNTY, N.C. — A group that helps first responders struggling with emotional, health and financial problems is in dire need of funding.

A chaplain in Iredell County told Channel 9’s Brittney Johnson that some first responders help with basic needs like food and gas, and others are at risk of suicide.

When flames destroy homes, cars crash and criminals strike, first responders rush in, but when emergencies hit them, Andrew Donawa is the one who responds.

"If I get a phone call in the middle of the night that something has happened to a first responder, it doesn’t matter where I am, I'm going to pick up and go, said Donawa.

[ALSO READ: York County opens mental health court as alternative for jail]

It was after his sister’s death from cancer when he was in high school that Donawa pushed to create the Iredell County Chaplain Program.

Once he became the chaplain and started helping crews debrief after devastating calls, Donawa discovered a need for more support.

[SPECIAL SECTION: Mental Health Resources]

“I had a couple first responders a few months later say, ‘Andrew, we were struggling with that call, it really bothered us,’” he said.

It’s been nearly one year since he started the nonprofit First Responder Support Services. Donawa has been fundraising, planning funerals and providing critical counseling for dispatchers, firefighters, officers and their families to help them through the calls they get on and off the job.

When a Statesville warehouse went up in flames, Donawa arrived with food for exhausted fire crews.

When Mooresville officer Jordan Sheldon was killed in the line of duty, he prayed with Sheldon’s brothers and sisters in blue.

[Charlotte's hidden crisis: There is help and there is hope]

When firefighter Ray Elmore lost his leg in a motorcycle wreck, he paid for his daughter’s plane ticket from Florida because she couldn’t afford the flight.

"We just knew he was in a bad accident and she needed to see her dad,” he said.

Donawa says first responder jobs are stressful enough, but when workers face personal emergencies under the surface, the risks for burnout – even suicide -- go up, which can hurt their ability to answer calls for help.

[ALSO READ: Man's mission to remove mental health stigmas]

His group is making a difference, including raising money for medical treatments for Chris Snow, who left the Iredell County Sheriff’s Office after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

“They can help in so many ways,” said Snow.

Donawa and other community members are raising money for stem cell treatments that may help Snow walk again without assistance.

“It’s been kind of tough, but it also humbled me quite a bit. It’s great, amazing at times the amount of support we have gotten,” said Donawa.

Donawa said this year alone, he and his volunteers have spent 3,000 hours providing support services for free.

[ALSO READ: City leaders approve $3.5M contract allowing mental health experts to ride along with CMPD]

“Iredell County is huge, and they'll tell you it’s challenging,” he said.

As calls for help from other counties and lawmakers grow, Donawa vows to keep on answering.

“We are here to save lives, and I want to help save their lives,” he said.

First Responders Support Services is holding several fundraisers to help pay for gas, food and medical treatment for some officers.

To learn about other ways to support their efforts, click here.

Read more top trending stories on wsoctv.com: