Montgomery County

Montgomery County Deputy Sheriff works to ‘put people at ease’

Deputy Sheriff Heather Harder, Montgomery County
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Deputy Sheriff Heather Harder, Montgomery County

Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie, News

Like front-line workers across the nation, state and region, Montgomery County Deputy Sheriff Heather Harder’s job was abruptly and significantly impacted by COVID-19. Yet the pandemic that’s currently driving up numbers across the region hasn’t eroded or altered Harder’s resolve, positive attitude or mission to improve local lives.

When COVID-19 changed the world in March, Harder was forced to rapidly adapt to changes in both her job and personal life. At work and home, Harder acts as a protector, constantly working to alleviate fears while minimizing COVID’s threat.

On a daily basis, Harder is stationed at the Fonda-Fultonville Middle School, as she’s currently in her fourth year serving as the district’s appointed school resource officer.

With two young kids at home, working to alleviate the fears of — while educating — local youth is a 24-7 job for Harder, who noted that a day in the Fonda-Fultonville Central School District has basically changed from top to bottom.

In prior school years, a bell rang every 40 minutes and kids would come rushing into hallways, chatting as they walked, stopping at lockers or playing quick jokes on one another. “That’s no more this year,” Harder explained of the previously care-free vibe. Students no longer change rooms between classes, nor do they visit their lockers.

“It’s almost like a ghost town at the school,” she said. “The environment has changed. It’s very quiet, but I think everybody understands why we have to do it for now.”

Having instructed Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) courses at F-FCSD, Canajoharie, Fort Plain and Oppenheim-Ephratah-St. Johnsville central school districts since she began her employment at the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office seven years ago, Harder has experienced some of the most significant COVID-related changes in that capacity.

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Recently, D.A.R.E. rolled out a brand-new, entirely virtual program, which Harder spent several days last week prepared to teach. While she said the virtual program “is actually really neat,” there are major differences in terms of how the program’s participants are engaged.

“For the D.A.R.E. program, there’s lots of moving around the room, interacting with peers, and because of COVID, we’ve had to change the way we do it,” she said.

For instance, two weeks ago, Harder taught a D.A.R.E. segment wherein students are annually tasked with creating a short skit to present to their peers. “It’s always chaotic, always a lot of fun,” she said. Now, the program involves kids sitting at their desks and creating skits using Chromebooks.

“There is a little bit of a disconnect,” said Harder of student engagement and interaction, “because they can’t get into those close-knit groups like they typically would.”

“But,” she said, “We’re doing the best we can.”

Harder noted that since the 2020-2021 school year began, she’s had to speak to students specifically about COVID-19. While she provides lessons on how to stay as safe as possible, the realities of the disease are also discussed. “You have to go on every day and do what you normally do,” Harder tells the kids, who she advises to “be afraid, but don’t be afraid. Always be aware and be cautious,” but don’t live in terror.

On a day off from school or when the students are on break, Deputy Harder is on the road. While the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office was able to rapidly adapt to COVID-19 when the area largely closed down in March, procedural changes are as constant as the release of new information. “What used to be weekly seems to be changing daily — sometimes hourly,” Harder said.

Currently, when a deputy responds to a residence, they ask people to step outside for an interview “so we don’t have to go into their home,” said Harder, noting that wearing a mask and sanitizing consistently is a must. “We try to limit exposure between people as best we can while still serving the community.”

Even prior to COVID, a day on the road responding to calls put deputies in situations where they’re interacting with people in their worst moments. Since March, those hard moments have only been exacerbated. “Given the state that we’re in now in the pandemic, I think people are down as it is. So if I can just do the smallest thing to help them out,” she’s up for the task, said Harder.

Sometimes that means doing something as simple as listening to a person’s worries. Just being able to talk through a rough moment, to let a person know, ‘It’s going to be OK. There is going to be a light at the end of this tunnel,’ ” can significantly improve a day or mood. For an older person who hasn’t been able to get out much since COVID’s onset, just stopping by and saying hello, or picking something up at the store, can brighten a day.

“You try to do whatever you can to alleviate it,” Harder said of peoples’ COVID-related suffering.

With Harder’s husband also in law enforcement — the couple having two young children — reducing potential COVID-19 exposure at home has become a constant task. Immediately upon arriving home, Harder and her husband strip and launder their uniforms, and sanitize their belts and vests. “It gets time consuming and it’s very old at this point,” she said, adding, “we try to minimize contact with the kids.”

Harder said because they’re out in the community all day long, she and her husband attempt to remain at home as much as possible during personal time, since cutting out postwork activities “helps to minimize the threat.”

While Harder acted as a protector in her job and personal life even prior to COVID-19, the current situation has amplified the need for individuals who are willing to step up and fill an empathetic, understanding role.

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If anything, Harder said, COVID-19 has strengthened her resolve and mission to brighten the world, even if by just one individual at a time. She explained that prior to COVID, and now more than ever, “I just like making somebody’s day.”

“What I do at work I take home with me,” she noted, adding that in the course of an average day, “if I can put a smile on somebody’s face, or if I can give them what they need, or even help them out — point them in the right direction,” the reward outweighs the burden.

“Just being able to put people at ease,” concluded Harder, “is probably the thing that I enjoy most.”

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