March 18, 1942 - July 22, 2009
Friend, Colleague and Healer
After a long courageous battle with cancer Dr. Al Benner died July 22, 2009 peacefully with his family and friends by his side at the age of 67. Al is survived by his wife Maryann Polino Benner and their daughter Kiri. Al is survived by his mother Rosalie Clavere, his daughters Cris Benner (Jones) and Danielle Benner (Buoncristiani), and grandchildren Sara & Jacob Jones and Leo & Dante Buoncristiani.
Al’s passion about the mountains and the sea was always evident in the way his eyes sparkled when he spoke of where he wanted to be. Yet his passion for his job as a SFPD Police Officer for 35 years and “Cop Doc” is what changed many people’s lives and what will be remembered and carried on throughout time.
Al spent his life helping others. Al's career as a policeman began in January of 1965 and lasted over 35 years. It is in those 35 years of being a policeman, where Al grew professionally and flourished. Al worked at many different stations through his career; Mounted Patrol, Ingleside, Mission, General Hospital to name a few. Al's favorite assignment was his years on the Mounted Unit. Al had his favorite horse “Fast Eddie” who saw him through many chases. As Al rose through the ranks, he furthered his education and became a Psychologist. Al retired as a Captain and leading the Stress Unit of the S.F.P.D. After his retirement he co-founded and was the Clinical Director of West Coast Post-trauma Retreat. Al felt honored to work with all of his co-workers who he highly respected as well as the individuals and families he supported.
Al was an amazing man who touched many people’s lives.
DROP THE ROCK – Written by Terry B.
I heard about the death of a friend today. He struggled long and hard with that “C” word. He struggled long and hard with many of life’s issues during his 60+ years on this earth, and 30+ years as a police officer in San Francisco. Not an easy path to choose, a member of the police force in a major city. It took its toll on him as it does on many members of that brotherhood. The things they encounter and are forced to be a part of “all in a days work” boggle the mind of a mere citizen. Survival becomes the name of the game, and in some respect, the only thing that matters. Many studies suggest that children who are consumed with the survival instinct do indeed survive but are not allowed the luxury to thrive. Perhaps the same principle applies to the thousands of first responders out there willing to “stand on the wall in order to keep us safe” (quoted from a favorite film of mine, “A Few Good Men”). What happens to their abilities, their needs to thrive? Lives get out of balance proportionately as involvement in crisis increase. Relationships suffer, substances get abused, thinking becomes distorted, judgments get cloudy and sometimes bad choices are made. But worst of all, self esteem plummets--- “What is happening to me? “ “If I focus and try harder I can make all these things right!” But alas, the spiral has begun.
My friend Al suffered through many of these scenarios and painfully watched friends suffer similarly. Until they had had enough. First one and then another reached out for help and eventually found it. In so doing the realization dawned that these “men in blue” had some unique needs and that unique help may be necessary. Who else but fellow officers could truly understand the bizarre nature of their dichotomous lives. “Goodbye honey “ in the morning. Gird up, be tough, stay tough, survive the day, and then back to “hi honey’ at the end of the shift. Crazy making indeed. Thus sprang West Coast Post Trauma Retreat (WCPR), a program developed by and for first responders to help them begin to regain some sense of self respect and balance. A place to learn new tools for being healthy in the midst of chaos. A place to bond with others who more or less share a similar boat. A place to learn how to dig down deep and touch the soul of their younger selves, to ignite the spark to thrive, to remember how to love first themselves and then others, and how to pay it forward by example through volunteering for future retreats.
Men and women enter the rooms of the retreat in varying degrees of need---it matters not. They belong there because they are there seeking help; clients, clinicians, and volunteers alike. There are no accidents. It is perfectly imperfect. The clients are invited to lighten their loads, to remove some of the rocks from the backpacks of their lives. Throughout the 6 day retreat this happens figuratively and literally. Each client is given 2 rocks on which to write challenges they face that they are willing to let go of. At the end of each session they are given the choice to “drop the rock” on an ever growing pile of rocks from clients who have gone before, or to keep them if they are not yet ready to let them go. It is a truly awesome ritual ending the session.
The people who enter the building on Sunday are not the same people leaving on Friday. Every player has been altered in some way. Bonds have been made. Healing has occurred. Lives have been changed. Surely the hope is that all will leave those walls and go on to thrive but sadly, the world is still out there and for some the challenges are too great. But most are able to use their new skills for a better approach to life and have the tools to build on these skills. Many return as volunteers often getting as much out of their volunteer experience as they did of the client experience. This is how it is supposed to work. Like a big game of telephone. Every client, clinician, or volunteer that has ever been involved leaves an imprint which is inadvertently passed on to the next group.
Al helped to save my husbands life in the rooms of WCPR as he has hundreds of others. As the spouse of a first responder I have been allowed entry to these hallowed halls and am grateful daily for that opportunity. I feel blessed to be of any service I can to a program that is selfless in its desire to provide a safe haven to those in need. I only met Al Benner on one occasion as his illness was already progressed when I became involved in the program. I found him to be a gentle soul with a gift for touching the hearts of those around him. His name is mentioned numerous times during every retreat I have attended. And although I did not know him personally, I call him my friend. His legacy is palpable through every inch of that organization. That is how it works, touched by all who have ever been a part of the program.
Al has finally dropped his last rock. I am grateful that he no longer suffers. The world is a better place because he existed and he could not be more present in WCPR than if he were still physically present at every retreat to come.