Inside Colorado’s Crisis Counseling Program: How personal experience with disaster helped Derek Gaarder help others 

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By Caroline Bunn, MA LPC, SummitStone Health Partners and Colorado Spirit Community Liaison

In the spring of 2008, Derek Gaarder was in Longmont, Colorado planning his father’s funeral when he received a phone call many Coloradans would never expect. His home in Windsor had been hit by a tornado. Derek turned on the TV and watched in shock as a live video showed his destroyed home and neighborhood. Separated from his wife and two young sons, Derek was stranded for hours until he was told it was safe to go home. His hour-long drive home took more than four hours that day.

As his family rebuilt their life and home, Derek learned of the Crisis Counseling Program, also known as CCP. A program built to support survivors of the Northern Colorado Tornado of 2008, CCP staff offered Derek emotional support and explained how to access resources to clean up debris and repair his home.

Coincidentally, Derek was employed by the agency where CCP was housed in his county at the time. Given his experience as a survivor of the tornado, the CCP soon approached him to fill a role with the same team that had just supported him. Eager to help other survivors, Derek took the job and found his niche. He went on to be a part of CCP teams responding to the High Park and Woodland Heights fires in 2012 and the floods of 2013. He now leads the SummitStone Health Partners CCP team responding to COVID-19.

To help others understand the scope of CCP, explain why he loves disaster response, and discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic has made us all survivors, Derek sat down to answer a few questions.


Can you describe CCP for people who may not have heard of it before?

The Crisis Counseling Program (CCP) is a short-term disaster relief team that helps people recover and rebuild their lives after a natural disaster, or, in this case, the COVID-19 pandemic.  We focus on reaching out to individuals, families, and businesses to support them with resources, offering emotional support through our warm line phone, brief counseling services, and even educational presentations. What I really like is that our services are free, anonymous, and confidential.


Disaster response to COVID-19 seems like it would be very different from response to a fire or flood. As a long-time CCP staff member, what has been new for you this time around?

There are a lot of differences. With natural disasters, the event happens quickly, with an end date and an overall feeling that the disaster is over.  With the pandemic, people are worn down over time and a sense of loss builds as different parts of their lives are impacted. With so much unknown, there’s also a continued fear of loss. Another difference is that with other disasters, protective measures are clear and can be empowering. While we know distancing, wearing masks, and relying on technology for connection outside of our homes are so important in keeping us healthy, these measures can also make us feel more isolated. Also, no matter who you are or how many resources you have, everyone has been affected in some way by COVID-19. We are all survivors.

Most people understand what a fire or flood is and have some framework for what that looks like. With a global pandemic, we have no experience to base our thoughts or actions on moving forward. We’re always adjusting.


As someone who has been affected by disaster personally, what would you tell people who are struggling with their own experience?

While my family and I recovered from the tornado, I remember thinking, “Man, I just want things to be normal again.” But you have to realize you can’t really return to the way things used to be. To me, it takes time to embrace “the new normal” as we become survivors of these life-changing events.

This life-changing event will not define you; rather, it is an experience that becomes a part of your life story.


Since this is your fourth time being part of a CCP team, I assume you enjoy the work. What keeps you coming back?

I’m thankful for this work because I get to pay it forward. After my own experience, I appreciated the CCP team offering the emotional support I needed and also helping me access resources I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. Now I get to be that supportive person for others.

Find more information on the statewide CCP initiative’s website.

For more information on SummitStone Health Partners and their CCP, visit the Colorado Spirit website.

For resources or emotional support, call 970-221-5551.