Vail Valley column: Lessons in the firehouse

Mark Miller
Valley Voices

His name is Sam. He’s 21 and comes to the fire station each week to teach us. It’s not what you think — he’s not there to teach us the newest technical rescue tip, or the best way to raise a ladder, or about fire behavior; that’s not it at all.

You see, Sam is disabled, mentally and physically. For 19 years, he has had epilepsy, suffering with seizures incessantly; still, he teaches us. He came to us as part of the school district’s transition program — it’s to help students with disabilities transition to adult life. His transition instructor, Donna, thought he could learn everyday skills at the fire station. Instead, he taught us. We were hesitant at first; he taught us about perception. We tried to show him how to tie simple knots; he taught us patience. We showed him how to roll a fire hose; he taught us that you can get excited about doing it. He gives high fives every time he sees us; he taught us about the purity of meaningful relationships. We can do whatever we want in life, but he’s quite happy mopping the floor; he taught us humility. We tried to show him how to navigate obstacles on the floor to develop coordination; he taught us that we take too many things for granted, and heart is more important than abilities. We got him a fire shirt with his name on it; he taught us it was his medal of honor. We attended his graduation ceremony from the transition program; he taught us it’s OK for big tough firefighters to cry. He taught one of our 27-year-old firefighters about life, being real and friendship — meeting Sam was a defining moment in his life.

Recently, Sam’s mom told us she and Sam were driving down the interstate. Sam spotted the fire engine on the road and said, “Mom, there’s my co-workers.” Nah, you’re not just a co-worker, Sam, you’re one of us. See you next week.

We received a phone call at the fire station. Not one we expected — one of those rousing calls. The caller stated he had tried to commit suicide a short time ago. He said our firefighters saved his life. He called to say thanks, he’s getting help, and he wanted to come in and personally thank each firefighter that helped. Gulp … whoa. He didn’t have to call, but his perspective on life changed that day — a second chance, when previously he thought he had no chance. After his call, I was struck by the thought of what the conversation around his dinner table might be that night. Perhaps there was no conversation, but the simple unexpressed reassurance that he will be there another day — to celebrate Thanksgiving, to give a hug, to see a sunset, to embrace a changed perspective. Thanks for the call my friend; we’re glad you’re here. Our perspective has changed, too.

Fire stations all over the country seem to be places of refuge — a place where people will stop to get help — for just about anything. A young woman in her 30s with three small children walked into the fire station. She seemed tired, forlorn and uncomfortable. The duty officer asked how we could help her. Reluctantly, she asked, “Do you have any food for my children?” Huh? Admittedly, we had not had that question asked before. Probably a scam — definitely. She continued, “We are on our way to Idaho — we ran out of gas. Someone helped us with the gas, but my kids have not eaten in a while. Do you have any food?” A minute later, her husband appeared. They were not only weary, but filthy. We checked it out — no scam, just a family on tough times. I’m sure there is more to the story, but just the same, we fed them, let them shower, gave the kids a plastic fire helmet and sent them on their way. As I drove home that night, I could not get them off my mind — hopelessness but hopefulness. Maybe, just maybe, one of those three little kids will grow up and help someone in need. It’s perspective. I’m betting on it.

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Mark Miller is Vail’s fire chief.

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