For two years, Kendra Marsteller has been Texas State University’s certified mental health liaison officer, a position the school created after a rise in mental health concerns and crises in the community.
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About a year ago, “pawfficer” Brady — a yellow Labrador therapy dog from Florida — joined Marsteller’s team at Texas State. The happy pooch has taken to his therapy job like a duck to water: He attends sporting events, visits residence halls and meets people upon request. He’s one of the top dogs on campus and has an Instagram account with more than 2,000 followers.
But the duo’s service stretches beyond the 39,000-student campus in San Marcos.
In September, Marsteller and Brady traveled to Maui for two weeks to provide support and comfort to people affected by a massive blaze a month earlier that ravaged the Hawaiian island, becoming the deadliest U.S. wildfire in a century. The fire ignited Aug. 8 in Lahaina, a historic, picturesque town on the western side of the island. It burned more than 2,000 acres, destroyed 2,700 homes and was linked to 100 deaths.
When Texas State University Police Chief Matthew Carmichael — who helped start a victim services partnership with the Maui County prosecutor’s office about two years ago — heard about the destructive fire, he knew he had to send help. Cadaver and service dogs were on the island, but local law enforcement lacked therapy dogs.
“When the fire started, (Carmichael) contacted them and said we got to send somebody; they need help,” Marsteller said.
Though she was nervous about being away from Texas State, even for just two weeks, Marsteller thought about how the 2011 Bastrop County Complex Fire — the most destructive wildfire in Texas history — had affected some of her friends who lived in that community, and she sprang into action.
“Yes, let’s do it,” she said.
After working closely with the Animal Industry Division of the Hawaii Department of Agriculture and Animal Quarantine Station in Hawaii to expedite Brady’s quarantine requirements and process, Marsteller and the therapy dog boarded a plane and flew to Maui.
The pair got to work immediately. At a Federal Emergency Management Agency distribution center that she and Brady visited, Marsteller said when people saw the brown-eyed pooch, they would light up, get excited and even cry.
“Some people would just crawl on the floor toward him,” Marsteller said. “One individual — she was working — her chair caught her power cord to her laptop and her laptop fell on the floor because she turned so quickly” to see Brady.
Marsteller said she, too, couldn’t contain her emotions when she saw how great residents’ need for support was on the island.
“You could see their pain on their faces; you could see their loss,” she said. “I cried with them. A friend of mine lost everything in the Bastrop fire. I remembered what she went through, and these guys are going through the same thing, if not worse. Because so many people lost their lives and their homes and everything.”
The Bastrop County Complex Fire burned 34,000 acres, destroyed nearly 1,700 homes and left two people dead, according to FEMA. Though Maui’s fire was smaller in size, its destruction was greater.
Even amid the devastation in Maui, Marsteller said, there were moments of hope. When adults and children alike saw Brady, they were able to come to the present moment and find some relief.
“They smiled; they lit up,” Marsteller said. It’s “a moment in time where you’re not worried about everything else that’s going on; you’re not worried about everything. You’re just in this moment with Brady.”
Marsteller met a child who had lost her dog in the fire. She gave the girl a stuffed animal like Brady.
“I gave her one, and I was like, ‘If you’re ever scared, just hold on to him; hold on to baby Brady,’ ” she said. “It’s just that presence.”
The official in Maui with whom Marsteller worked had lost her home in the fire. Marsteller said she has kept in touch with her, and the two reconnected at a conference in Dallas.
Marsteller said she wants people to know that Maui is still grieving, and that the process of recovery is about more than just rebuilding.
“It’s everything after that people don’t realize and don’t consider,” she said. “It’s the processing of their emotion, in terms of losing a loved one, losing their entire house, losing power, losing family, friends, whoever, they’re still living it. And it’s going to take years for them to recover.”
‘There’s always hope, and there’s always help’
Before becoming Texas State University’s victim services liaison, Marsteller had been a volunteer firefighter, emergency services dispatcher, constable and patrol officer. Her calling, she said, is making sure anyone who needs help can find it.
“My passion has always been community outreach, victim services and mental health, because I will say there are other states that are more progressive than Texas when it comes to mental health,” she said. “I want our kids to have the best experience they can at Texas State, and I think Brady plays a very vital role in that.”
Carmichael, the university’s police chief, said that to his knowledge Marsteller was the only U.S. officer who brought a therapy dog to Maui.
“Texas State is a global entity. We have students here from all around the world,” he said. “And I know that if we were to suffer a similar catastrophic event, my peers would come here in a minute, and I wouldn’t have to ask. It’s a part of us, so we went.”
Carmichael said a big takeaway for him has been the importance of supporting first responders as well as those in distress. About 11 officers in Maui lost their homes to the fire, he said, but they showed up to work every day.
He said Marsteller connects students with available resources at the university’s student health and counseling centers and works closely with the city of San Marcos to help students find additional resources. He said he hopes to recruit more certified mental health officers and therapy dogs.
“Anecdotally, from a chief’s perspective, nationally, we’ve been identifying persons in crisis as one of our No. 1 calls for service,” Carmichael said. “I probably can’t articulate well enough the importance of having a trained certified mental health officer and the therapy dog.”
Walking around Texas State on a recent Monday morning, Brady encountered a group of Texas State cheerleaders. He greeted commuters with his nose and let those who needed to pet his soft head run their fingers through his blond fur. Marsteller walked him around campus with a smile on her face.
Marsteller said she hopes her work and Brady’s presence help remind people on campus that there is support for them, that they are not alone.
“There’s always hope, and there’s always help,” she said. “There’s always going to be someone there for help and hope.”