Project Heartland to close down next month once funding runs out

Friday, October 27th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- A free counseling service set up to help Oklahomans with trauma following the bombing of the Alfred P.

Murrah Federal Building will close its doors Nov. 30 now that federal funding has stopped.

Project Heartland opened a few weeks after the April 19, 1995, bombing and has served thousands of people since. It also counseled and worked with more than 300 victims after last year's May tornadoes and with victims of the shooting at Fort Gibson Middle School last year.

The state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, which handles Project Heartland, is trying to find other facilities for counselors to work with clients on bombing-related problems. The service would remain free.

Rescue workers, victims' family members and survivors have frequented the center with occasional visits from the public, those who worked in downtown Oklahoma City and the media.

Counselor Jim Norman, who has worked with Project Heartland since the bombing, said the center's workers are trained to deal with trauma victims, unlike other counselors who deal with a wide range of topics.

Norman said he worries closing the center will leave no place for people to go for help.

He said an average of 12 new people a month -- largely rescue workers -- come to see him at Project Heartland, which now has two counselors. The center works with about 100 clients at a time.

"People say they are having nightmares or having trouble with memories of the bombing. ... There appears to be a definite need,"

he said.

Phyllis Poe, a chaplain for the Oklahoma City Police Department said rescue workers are waiting until now, five years later, to get help because it takes that long for some of them to realize they need help.

Poe said she knows of at least one officer who started going to the service within the past week.

"Some of them have been very helped by it and are still being helped," she said.

Carolyn Hightower, a deputy director at the Justice Department, said her office, which handles grants for crime victims, knows a need is still there.

But, she said, it's time the state or city pay for the counseling instead of the federal government.

The Justice Department and FEMA extended their grants several times to help victims of the bombing and tornadoes, Hightower said.

The FEMA crisis counseling program for Oklahoma City was the longest in its history, several years longer than the typical nine-month program.

Hightower said the Justice Department was authorized to offer $500,000 for three years, but extended that to nearly $2 million over five years.

The last request from Oklahoma City came from Oklahoma County District Attorney Bob Macy. He wanted money to help victims during the state bombing trial.

"We don't have authority to keep funding them," Hightower said. "It's not the role of the federal government.

"The federal government has been the only one that has put up any money for mental health needs. The question may be, where does the state stand on it as far as mental health needs?"

Oklahoma City Councilwoman Ann Simank said she talked with outgoing City Manager Glenn Deck about giving $100,000 to Project Heartland. The offer would hinge on the vote of other city council members and the will of the new city manager.

Officials with the state Mental Health Department also would have to file a formal request, she said.

The interim commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services is to meet with some of his staff and Project Heartland counselors Friday to talk about the change.