The health in hobbies

      Inside a house located in the desert of Arizona, an officer stands in his kitchen. After a long day working in homeland security, he's looking for a respite. Within these walls, his wife Cheri nearby, he can put aside the stress of being a law enforcement officer. He puts down his badge and picks up a spatula.

   Officer William Young has been with the Phoenix Police Department for more than 33 years. But he's been doing something else longer. He's been baking cookies.

   "I started baking cookies 50 years ago," Young says. "My mom taught all of the kids to bake. She started me baking at about 9 years old. My dad was in the Army and while we were overseas, at Christmas time we would bake cookies to send to the enlisted men's barracks."

   After he became an officer, he continued to bake, but he started doing it regularly around 1990. Since that time, he has become known as the Cookie Cop.

Professional and personal stress

   "To stay healthy, you have to have interests outside the police department," Kerry White, communications supervisor with the Phoenix PD told a group of newly hired police telecommunications operators. Too often, police officers and support staff find themselves immersed in the cop world without any link to civilian life. Unfortunately, this can overwhelm a person. One way to combat that is by adopting a hobby. Many officers understand the need to have outside interests and embrace the challenge of maintaining a passion beyond the badge.

   In the academy, new officers typically receive 700 to 800 hours of training. "We provide them with all the training they need to be a police officer," explains Thomas Gillan, director of the Central Florida Police Stress Unit. "We teach them how to shoot a gun, how to drive a patrol car and how to take control of a situation." In contrast, he states officers only receive approximately 2 to 3 hours of training in stress and ethics. "They go hand in hand," he says. "When I went through the academy, I was told you react to stress in the way you were trained. We don't teach them about the realities. We don't talk about the high rate of divorce, the high rate of alcoholism, suicide and line of duty deaths. We don't give them the tools they need to cope and help themselves go through during their career." Having a hobby is one of those tools.

Playing with glass

   "As with many of us, I endure the common stresses of the job," says San Francisco County Deputy Sheriff Mike Hill. "I wanted to have something to do during my off-hours, and as a person who felt he didn't have the coordination for sports or a creative side, I didn't do very much." This quickly changed after he walked into Glass Reunions, a San Francisco shop catering to the glass arts.

   "In 1999, I began glass blowing at Public Glass in San Francisco," Hill says. "In six weeks, I completed the Level One course and was hooked. I continued onto the second level to refine my skills." Along with improving his skills, Hill found his hobby was also helping shape his well-being. "When I'm in my studio, I have neither judgment nor second guessing of whether I am doing something right or wrong," he states. "There is no criticism from others. I am focused on my work and don't think about those daily issues which bother me. This helps me have a clearer sense when I have to come back to reality."

   The reality is that officers are bombarded with negative things every day. "People don't call the officer when things are good," Gillan says. "Someone won't call and say, 'Hey, my daughter's graduating today and things are good.' They call when things are bad. [Officers] take in all this stuff and it will affect you after a while." Gillan uses the analogy of picking up bricks and putting them in an invisible backpack. Eventually, the backpack becomes too heavy to bear. To deal with the everyday personal and professional stress law enforcement officers have, Gillan says that officers "need to get involved in something else other than your job."

Finding the time

   Although having a hobby outside of police work has numerous benefits, many officers feel they don't have the time. With shift work, mandatory overtime, court appearances and off-duty work, many officers have taxed their time to the limit. Many lack the time to get adequate sleep, let alone pick up a hobby. "An officer in my office last week told me he didn't have any time," Gillan explains. "He was working 80 hours a week. I told him, 'You can make all the money in the world, but if you're dead tomorrow, it won't make any difference to your family. That's worth a lot more than that $100 you make in that job.' "

   A hobby must be placed high on the priority list. "You have to make the time," Gillan says "You have to schedule it like you would anything else."

Going for broke

   Another factor many people feel prohibited by is the perception of cost. Officers should have a hobby that doesn't cost a lot of money. "Hobbies are very important," Gillan says. But spending a lot of money isn't necessary. "It's about going there and having fun and not costing you so much money that when you come home you owe a $10,000 credit card bill. Take your kids to the park. You don't have to take your kid to Disneyland for $75 a pop. You can go and buy a $5 kite, sit down with your children and put that kite together, get a bucket of chicken and go to the park and fly the kite. But we don't do that. We think the more [money] we spend, the better it is."

   Like Young and Hill, Officer Barbara Heckman-Sauer, a 29-year veteran with the Veteran's Affairs Police in Texas has found a hobby she finds relaxing. She makes custom memorial wreaths for the families of officers and veterans who have died serving others. "I was an interior decorator and art major before become a cop," Heckman-Sauer says. "In the last eight years, I started making more of them. I worked with the Maryland officers and I'll leave one on the street corner where the officer was killed or I'll take one to the cemetery if the family wants it. I've been doing them for a long time."

   Heckman-Sauer makes unique wreaths for each family, spending time finding out who the officer was before they died. "This year in D.C. I made 10 wreaths for the families," she says. "The Corpus Christi officer's wife says he was a big Yankees fan, so I put Yankee gear inside the wreath. I try to include something the officer liked in every wreath."

   The wreaths not only make the families happy, but Heckman-Sauer as well. "It's a stress-reliever. Because I do these things and make other people feel good, it keeps my stress level down."

   After losing 13 friends on 9/11 including a close friend in the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, she had to find a way to deal with the increased stress. "Right after, I went home and started making wreaths and it brought [my stress level] back down again. Going through [New York City] all the time and the Pentagon was part of my route — it was hard. I made some extra ones that year."

The family that plays together

   According to Gillan, it is important to include family in the hobby. "When you become a police officer, your whole life changes," he says. "If you want to get through this, your family must be there to help support you. The hobby that an officer has must include them as a person but also should affect their whole family. Do something with your spouse, with your family. Go out and exercise. Get your fat butt out of the recliner and when your child comes and says, 'come ride your bike with me,' go do it." Involving the family applies to both married and single officers.

   Officers should have a hobby, but family members should also have a separate hobby, Gillan adds. "They need to be together, but they need to be apart as well," he explains. "We have to be flexible. It's very important to them to have positive relationships with people, and the hobby is an important piece for healthy relationships."

Passing it on

   "I have had the opportunity to teach others in law enforcement about glass," Hill explains. "They visit my small studio and learn about glass and then they create. The first hour into the creation is often difficult. They have trouble breaking out of the box when it comes to being creative. After a few hours, I ask them one final question, 'Are you satisfied with what you have created?' The answer is, 'Yes!' "

   Along with teaching the hobby, Hill uses glass blowing to give in another way. After being treated for severe muscle spasms in his neck, which brought out mild depression, he created a bowl, known as the Clown Bowl, that he presented to the doctor who cared for him.

   "Occasionally, I still battle bouts of depression because of the pain that I experienced with my shoulder and neck and recurring job stresses," he explains. "My glass work gives me wonderful satisfaction in knowing that I am creating something that others enjoy. Giving a piece of glass to a friend is a wonderful feeling."

   Young also passes on his labor to others. "Cookie baking allows me to forget about the day-to-day frustration," he states. "It also allows me to combine my police work with my baking. When I worked the streets I liked to give away my cookies to the people I came in contact with. It felt good to help them see cops differently. I usually take cookies with me everywhere."

   Like Hill, Young is also teaching his hobby to other officers. "It has opened up different avenues to explore," he says. "For example, I teach cookie baking classes a couple times a year." If another officer were considering his hobby, Young would tell them: "Come to my cookie class and see how much fun it can be — [and] be prepared for it to become addicting."

Getting ready to retire

   A lot of hobbies lend themselves to becoming a business or having another interest to turn to when facing retirement, which can help an officer live a healthy, happy life for years to come. "When you retire you have to have a plan," Gillan says. "I'm not talking about money or a retirement plan. I'm talking about what you're going to do with your life. So what they do is make their hobby into a little business, which I think is really healthy. The officer I worry about is the officer who retires and doesn't have anything planned."

   Police work can take a lot out of even the healthiest person. Years of negativity and physical stress can cause problems ranging from not giving 100 percent, to creating a situation encouraging substance abuse or even suicide. Even though law enforcement work often feels like a 24-hour-a-day job, it's not; it's just a job. And to offset the stress, officers and their families must commit themselves to having hobbies. "Anything that one enjoys outside of work and does not bring them harm is a good thing," Hill says. "Go forth and find a hobby that works for each and every one of you. Let your mind wander outside the box, the journey can be wonderful."

   Michelle Perin is a freelance writer who worked as a police telecommunications operator with the Phoenix (Ariz.) PD for eight years. Currently she is working on her M.A. in Criminology from Indiana State University. For more information visit www.thewritinghand.net.

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