TRINITY — A monthly outing that gives active and retired first responders a chance to unwind has found a second home, at least for now, in Trinity.
Carlos Gonzalez, the operator the past nine years of the IHOP restaurant on State Road 54, will host a free breakfast from 8 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. at his location.
“I’ve always enjoyed the opportunity to give back to the community,” he said.
Another is set for the first Friday in April, and the Rev. Milton Smith, who retired as pastor of Mt. Hermon Missionary Baptist Church, in Tarpon Springs, in 2017, hopes the IHOP will be willing to continue to rotate monthly with Tiffany’s restaurant on U.S. 19 in Palm Harbor. That’s where the first few of his First Responders Matter meetings have been held, encouraging camaraderie for those who may be strangers but perform in the same field.
“It’s a chance for them to reflect and reconnect,” said Smith, a retired first responder and who remains fire department chaplain in both Palm Harbor and Tarpon Springs. “I’ve been to conferences all over the place and it’s the same thing — I hear what firefighters and others go through and what they need. They have a passion for what they do, but the trauma and mental and physical stress is very real. They need to have a place to go where others relate but where there is no agenda. Just a chance to socialize.
“I’ve been through a lot of it myself, so I know.”
Smith, whose organization is now an LLC but is working toward gaining tax-exempt nonprofit status, is excited to see his efforts branch out into Pasco County. After all, he has roots here as part of a long and varied career.
“I may run into someone I haven’t seen in 20 years,” he said. “Wouldn’t that be great? You never know.”
Now living in Dunedin, Smith, who survived a bullet to the head when caught in crossfire when 9 years old, began his life of community service as a 16-year-old volunteer with what was then the ambulance service in Tarpon Springs.
“That was before 9-1-1 existed,” he said.
Later, his first-responder-related roles included time as a dispatcher with the fire and police departments in Port Richey, then time with Pasco County Fire Rescue. Next, he joined Palm Harbor Fire Rescue, where he’d spend more than 27 years, before his retirement from the pulpit.
“I’ve been around a lot of first responders and I know they need to get away from the station,” Smith said. “It’s important and I’m not surprised the interest is growing. I’m looking forward to expanding this. It’s needed.”
If interested in attending the Feb. 1 breakfast, Smith asks that you notify him through the First Responders Matter page on Facebook.