When the producers of action star John Cena’s new film, Playing With Fire, approached us to join them in honoring the lifesaving work of America’s first responders, we jumped at the chance. So earlier this year, GH readers from across the country nominated their personal heroes for Good Housekeeping's Playing With Fire Hometown Heroes contest. While only one winner got to appear on our November cover with John, we salute all of the incredible nominees that we had the privilege of learning from. Here, we ask John why this cause is so important to him, and showcase just a few of the remarkable people on the front lines fighting to keep our families safe every day.
Our cover partner, John Cena, talks honoring first responders:
"I wanted to use the buzz around my new movie, Playing With Fire (I play a smoke jumper), to showcase real rescuers," says John. "So I teamed up with Good Housekeeping and put out the call for people to nominate a hero who inspired them." Here’s why John was so eager to spotlight them:
On what it means to be a hero ... “To me, a hero is anyone who lives with passion and purpose, no matter what kind of job he or she clocks in to. What sets first responders apart is that an ordinary day of work can include willingly facing down danger. I admire that because it is something I have trouble doing. I enjoy doing stunts, but when something doesn’t seem too safe, I’m like, ‘We should talk this over....’ ”
On showing gratitude ... “My brother, Dan, has been a cop for 20 years. I know he has been in some pretty hairy situations and emergencies to which I will never be able to relate. Those things come with the job he’s dedicated his life to. But like most first responders, he’s humble. So I think it’s up to us to find out who the people in our communities are who save lives — and let them know they are appreciated.”
On winning our hearts ... “My cover costar, Lori Byrd, impressed me not just with her bravery, but with her perseverance and determination to help carve the path for the next class of female firefighters. I am proud to introduce you to her and five other outstanding nominees who give back to their communities both on and off the job.”
Lori’s journey to becoming a firefighter began years before she signed up for training. In 2010, she was managing a local bank branch. One morning, while Lori was doing routine security checks before the bank opened, a car pulled into the drive-through lane. The driver, who had her son in the back seat, dropped her ATM card. In reaching to retrieve it, she accidentally hit the gas pedal and the car jolted straight ahead into a retention pond. At first it looked as if she was going to swim out with her son and be OK. But then she began floating facedown.
“At that point, I was like, There’s nobody else here. I’ve got to do something,” says Lori. So she raced outside, dove into the water and pulled the woman out. She and another person who worked nearby then went back in to look for the son, who was stuck in the mud at the pond’s bottom. Finding him, they carried him out and started performing CPR. Soon after that, the fire department arrived. Both the woman and her son survived, and later the boy’s grandparents came in to thank Lori for her bravery.
The experience changed Lori in a way she hadn’t expected: “I had always wanted to be a firefighter, but growing up I didn’t think it was a career for women, so I didn’t pursue it. There were a couple of women firefighters who responded to the accident that day, and I thought, I can do this.”
Still, it took another dramatic event to convince her to pursue the calling. Four years later, when her dad suffered a massive stroke, the heroism of the first responders who came to his rescue inspired Lori to enroll in firefighter school. “Now when I go on calls for stroke victims, it’s dear to my heart,” she says.
Despite facing some standoffishness as a woman in a predominantly male field, she didn’t let the few naysayers get to her. “When I first started, there were some older guys, now retired, who didn’t think women should be in this line of work, and you could tell,” she says. “That can be disheartening, but it motivated me. I mean, I go through the same physical testing; I wear the same amount of gear. Once you prove yourself, it changes, but it takes a while for some people to come around. My current station isn’t like that. I go to work and it’s like I get to hang with a bunch of friends, brothers and sisters while helping save people along the way.”
She hopes that by being on the GH cover, she can inspire other women to keep pushing forward and become first responders as well. “When I got hired, there were 90 women in our department of 1,300. We’re hiring a lot more, which makes me happy,” she says. “Don’t let the other stuff stop you from pursuing this career.” Consider the hero you could become.
When Sharliene Bowers isn’t serving with the Ruscombmanor Volunteer Fire Company, she’s in the dog show ring with two of her five German shepherds. After noticing how comforting they were to her husband and fellow firefighter, Tom Rhoads — who happens to be the department’s fire chief — she decided to get 3-year-old Jaeger certified as an emotional-support animal. “Many first responders have problems opening up to people. So most think we don’t get emotional, but we’re only human,” Sharliene says. “A dog opens that curtain a little bit. And even if they don’t want to talk, he’s a furry shoulder to cry on.” At press time, she and Jaeger were in the midst of the process of getting certification from the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, which involves at least three sessions with a professional evaluator to ensure that Jaeger can stay calm in schools, hospitals and other places therapy dogs routinely visit. Once certified, Sharliene and Jaeger will be available to anyone who needs them, but especially to first responders. “If I can help just one of my brothers and sisters, it’ll be worth it,” she says. – Lizz Schumer
As a first-responder couple serving at two different stations — they’ve been married for six years and have three children — Tamara and Brent Jonas have a special bond forged through knowing how intense the job can be. Along with emotionally supporting each other, mental compartmentalization is important. To stay grounded, Tamara and Brent practice yoga and exercise, work on their farm, volunteer at church and try to leave work at the station. But even when the couple’s minds are off the job, their hearts are always in it. The Jonases run a seasonal fireworks stand that offers discounts to active and retired first responders and members of the military. At the end of the season, they donate a portion of their profits to their church and to local police and fire departments. “We’re very grateful that we get to help people,” Tamara says. “And we feel very blessed that we’re capable of doing it.” – Lizz Schumer
First responders run into burning buildings and disaster zones, but Alissa Sypsa reminds us that not all emergencies are accidents or natural catastrophes — some are caused intentionally by human hands. “We see evil firsthand,” says Alissa. And that can take a huge toll: “There is a high rate of suicide among firefighters. We’re the people who try to help others, so I think sometimes it’s hard to accept help ourselves,” she says. The way she deals with the emotional weight of the job is to “stay balanced and keep hope at the forefront.” For Alissa, balance means connecting with loved ones and doing as much good as she can during her off-hours. She volunteers with her church congregation, cooking for the elderly and creating craft projects for kids. After Hurricane Irma, Alissa and some of her friends helped find shelter for a group of around 40 evacuees, 12 of whom even stayed with her in her home. “One of the women missed her baby shower because she had to leave her own home, and a lot of people chipped in to throw her a new one. There are constant reminders that kindness and goodness will always outweigh evil,” Alissa says. – Andra Chantim
Jacqueline Cassagnol creates “first responders” for communities in need. Her nonprofit, Worldwide Community First Responder (WCFR), provides health education and first aid training. She was inspired to found WCFR after volunteering in a disaster-preparedness program in Haiti. “A local told me, ‘If we had known what you are teaching us now, fewer people would have died during the earthquake,’” she says. “We want people to know that no matter what, they have the power to increase their chances of survival and even help others.” – Andra Chantim
They were supposed to be talking about themselves, but couldn’t help giving advice on how you can be safer.
- Learn Hands-Only CPR. You’ll be able to recognize signs of cardiac arrest and help out until medical professionals arrive. — Jacqueline Cassagnol
- Sleep with the bedroom door closed. This increases your chances of surviving if your house catches on fire. — Alissa Sypsa
- Make your house number highly visible. If you live in a rural area or are in one of several houses on a private road, clearly label the end of the driveway and your house so rescue can find you quickly. Those extra minutes count. — Sharliene Bowers
This story originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of Good Housekeeping.
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