Ready and willing to help

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Margaret Plevak | July 23, 2017

TOWN OF SHARON—Samantha Schaefer trusts karma.

“I believe if you do good, it will come back to you,” said Schaefer, 30, who lives on a beef cattle farm in the town of Sharon with her husband and three boys.

“We're the kind of people who can stop in the middle of making hay or making dinner if someone needs help,” she added, sitting in a breezeway of her house with a bottle of water one warm July afternoon. “It's a sacrifice, it's difficult, but you know you're helping someone.”

That attitude spurred her in 2012 to join the Darien Fire/EMS Department, where she's a volunteer firefighter.

It's a duty she makes time for around her full-time job as a service writer with WW Trucking in Darien, work on the family farm and being a mom to Owen, 10, Nathan, 7, and Lucas, 2.

Fire departments relying on volunteers face tough times today. Employers aren't always willing to let workers leave their jobs unexpectedly in the middle of a workday to respond to calls. And it's harder to recruit firefighters, because more people, caught up in busy lives, don't want to put in all the time training requires. Still, Schaefer wonders, if nobody volunteers, who will help those in need?

A 2015 U.S. fire department profile from the National Fire Protection Association reported that 7.3 percent of firefighters in the United States are women.

Schaefer is one of 12 women on the Darien Fire/EMS Department, which has a roster of 37 members. Four of those women are firefighters. She doesn't feel discriminated.

“I think a younger generation isn't as conscious of gender roles in jobs,” she said. “I do know a few women from other departments who felt as if they'd joined an old boys' club, but I've never felt that way. I don't think of myself as a woman trying to do this job. I'm a firefighter.”

Darien chiefs and firefighters on the team respect and support all members, she said.

“If you're at the scene and you would rather work outside putting out that fire than go into a burning house, you can,” she said. “We've had responders at the scene who've had a family member involved in an accident and they can step away and someone else will step forward.”

Over her five years with the department, she's seen the results of some horrific accidents involving fire, vehicle crashes, even farm equipment. It helps to be able to turn to those who've experienced and understood the trauma you've witnessed, she said. 

“You're developing a whole new family, a close family,” Schaefer said of her team. “I've had times where I can't sleep and I've called someone on the department just to talk. And I've had the phone ring here at one or two o'clock in the morning. 'Are you up?' 'I'm up now. What do you need?'

“Seeing those kinds of accidents has made me more cautious, like when I'm pulling out into the intersection near my house (along U.S. Highway 14), I often wait to make that turn. But you have to go on living, you can't just stop.”

She learned that lesson very personally when in 2015, her two oldest boys were injured in a multivehicle car crash involving a drunken driver on the interstate in Beloit. Owen was in a coma and suffered severe damage to his brain.

“Nathan suffered more emotionally because he wasn't knocked unconscious in the accident like the others in the vehicles,” she said. “He saw more of what happened.”

She learned to cope slowly day by day when Owen was in the hospital, frequently blogging about his recovery on CaringBridge, a worldwide website that provides updates on conditions of people and lets others offer encouragement and support.

She's grateful Owen survived.

“He has regained a lot of his previous capabilities but still has progress to make,” she said.

Still, when he went to camp recently, she found it hard to let go.

“I don't do well with my kids leaving. I knew I wasn't going to talk to him for that time he was at camp, and I had all these words,” she said. “I sat down and wrote him a letter for every day he was at camp. He came back with them. He saved them in his pack.”

Her husband, Kevin, is a firefighter with Darien Fire/EMS Department, too.

Her boys sometimes ask questions.

“They're interested. They know what we do,” she said. “Sometimes they say, 'But you're out in the middle of the street and you have to go inside a house that's on fire. What if you don't come back?' I tell them, 'I'm careful. I'll be back.'”

Schaefer also balances continuing education classes and meetings every other week at the fire department with work on various committees, including Darien's annual Cornfest, where department members roast thousands of ears of corn. Additionally, she's the president of the Darien Crossed Irons Firefighters Association, a nonprofit organization founded by the members of the Darien Fire/EMS Department.

Outside the department, she's involved in 4-H. She was an active member herself growing up, showing horses and “whatever miscellaneous animals came along.”

She paused to pick up a tiny, mewing black barn kitten winding itself around her ankles.

“There's something therapeutic about animals,” she said. “That's why I like working with them.

“My grandpa had a farm in Franklin (in Milwaukee County),” she said. “I lived in that area until I was 3. My dad bought this place in 1996 and I grew up here. It's always been beef cattle, and then some horses.”

For her, there was always something appealing about a farm.

“My parents would say, 'You've got to stay home now.' I'm like, 'No, I'm going to grandpa's.'”

Years later, the attraction is still there.

“Sometimes, I'll crawl up and hide out in the haymow just to take a minute or two to get away from all of it,” she said.

Lucas ran into the breezeway, hugged his mom, clambered on the sofa where she sat and then scrambled back down to play where mud, dogs and wet fields awaited.

“I want my kids to think about other people, to know they can help,” she said, watching her son. “You can't guarantee your children will turn out that way, but you can lay a path for them.”

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