By Melanie Lekocevic
Capital Region Independent Media
WESTERLO — When aspiring Eagle Scout Drew Joslin began looking around for a community service project to complete his Eagle requirements, he didn’t have to look any farther than his own backyard.
Joslin, the son of the Westerlo fire chief and a volunteer firefighter himself, decided he wanted to pay tribute to military members, veterans and first responders of all stripes.
He created Heroes Way, a path at the Westerlo Town Park dedicated to paying tribute to first responders, but also to provide a space for them to reflect and find tranquility. The path was opened to the public in a ceremony at the Westerlo Town Park in September.
Heroes Way also seeks to provide sustenance and support to struggling first responders in order to prevent an increasingly common tragedy — suicide among those on the front lines.
“Unfortunately, in 2023, 83 members who I call first responders — that includes law enforcement, corrections, fire, EMS and dispatchers — 83 people have taken their life so far this year,” said Inspector Thomas Praisner from the Albany County Sheriff’s Office. “That is 83 people too many. It’s unacceptable.”
There is a stigma to seek help for mental health in some quarters, Praisner said, and that stigma has to be eliminated.
“We have to remove this stigma. I am a law enforcement officer and my job is solely to take the oath and respond to anyone who needs help,” Praisner said. “I have everything in my car and I have all the training I need to help every person in this room, but who will help me? That’s something we don’t talk about.”
For his Eagle Scout project, Joslin took an existing but overrun half-mile trail at the park, cleared it, removed fallen trees and built bridges over rough terrain, installed benches, and posted information along the way for anyone who might need support if they are struggling, and ways they can get help.
“Studies show that approximately 20 veterans per day die by suicide,” said American Legion Troop 42 Committee Chair Steve Mataraza. “There are also other studies that show many of the deaths are ruled accidental, so that number may be twice as high. One is too many — it has to end. People have to be able to end the stigma and know that it is OK to not be OK. It is OK to reach out. The resources that Andrew has provided are a fantastic way for people to know there is a place where they can reach out for help.”
Joslin’s father, Westerlo Volunteer Fire Company Chief Andrew Joslin, said Heroes Way is a fitting tribute to a cause that few talk about.
“Even with our best efforts to train and prepare, firefighting is a dangerous and strenuous profession,” Andrew Joslin said. “Heroes Way highlights the occupational stresses that we experience and the need for firefighters to get help when they feel residual effects such as PTSD. According to the Firefighters Behavioral Health Alliance, more firefighters die from suicide each year than in the line of duty.”
Boy Scout Troop 42 Scoutmaster Colin Tumey said Joslin’s project represents what an Eagle Scout community service project is all about.
“With Drew’s leadership and with the help of many hands, he has literally built bridges, cleared paths and built a peaceful place for people to give thanks to those who have given their lives in the line of duty,” Tumey said. “He had a vision and turned it into a reality with the help of friends, family and the support of his community.”
From conception of the project to the ribbon cutting, Heroes Way was the work of six months and many volunteers, donors and supporters, Drew Joslin said.
“The final idea for the project was thought of during the ceremony for the opening of the Veterans’ Memorial last November,” Joslin said. “It would be a trail loop that ends at the Veterans Memorial. At the time, it was to honor veterans and military personnel. After the ceremony, I discussed the idea with my parents and we realized it was the perfect setting to honor all of my heroes.”
The path became a way to honor those who sacrifice every day to keep their country and their communities safe.
“Heroes Way is a trail that honors all of those who serve their communities and country,” Joslin said. “It honors them by providing a place of tranquility and reflection; quiet places to sit and reflect; in the evenings, the military bench provides the setting sun as a reminder that while the day is done, there is tomorrow to live for.”
His mother, Lisa Joslin, said she couldn’t be prouder of her son.
“I am so proud of him and everything that he has accomplished in this,” Lisa Joslin said. “It’s been a lot of work and what we thought was going to be a very simple idea took on a life of its own but in a very, very good way. Being the wife of the fire chief and having Drew honor the first responders and military and veterans has meant so much to me.”