Thursday, February 16, 2017

Valentine’s Day – "what do you think of?"

I’ve asked questions as a reporter that I didn’t realize would trigger emotions. It’s happened to me too. When my friend found out that I was no longer in a relationship, she asked what I had thought about with Valentines.

Maybe the timing of what had been weighing on my mind had caused such an honest response. Or maybe it was the way she phrased that question – “what do you think of?”

The words hit me like a tidal wave. “What do you think of?” I knew what my friend meant by asking, but she did not suspect that I would answer her the way I did.

“I think of how it was the last mother-daughter date I had three years ago. I treated her to a ham and cheese sandwich with tomato. It was the last time I made her a promise. She passed away two weeks later,” I recalled to my friend. “I think about the story I reported on about two siblings that were killed by a drunk driver that night two years ago. They traveled home with their family from a band competition they participated in. I think of how nothing would be the same again for them after first-responders were dispatched at 6:55 p.m. Saturday. I remember that it snowed that day, but the police said the inclement weather was not a factor in the crash. I think of how I long for the days when Valentine’s Day meant that I could eat more chocolate than I normally did in one day.”

When I talked to one of my fellow firefighters about it, he told me about similar experiences. He said he can remember specific details from incidents that occurred years ago, but he can’t remember something more recent and less significant.

“It still amazes me the details I remember from calls like that, but I can’t remember what I ate for lunch,” the firefighter said. “Those little details are what keep us going. Stay strong, Ginger.”

Journalists have those same experiences, but we can’t remember if we even ate lunch that day. Some people may think that reporters are too busy to express emotions because we are on to the next story. Well sometimes that’s true, and other times we are dealing with our emotions in our own way.

One of my mentoring editors had supported me after the loss of my mom in 2014. He checked on me every time I had to write an emotional story, especially death-related stories. A year later he died of cancer. I found myself at an all-time low. If it wasn’t for the support of family, friends, co-workers and my faith in God, I don’t know how I would have gotten through it. I didn’t think I could ever truly be happy again, but I have been.

But being a journalist made the grieving process tough. I wrote a story to honor the memories of the two siblings – Miles and Charlotte Hannagan from the Downingtown area – who were killed by a drunk driver. I interviewed their teachers and friends. My deadline fell on the one-year anniversary of my mother passing. That was the hardest thing I had to do as a reporter. But I didn’t think as much about my loss, as I thought about their parents. Knowing how difficult it was for me to lose a loved one, I wanted to put my heart into every story I had to do about someone else’s loss. 

Photo by Ginger Rae Dunbar - Paul and Maggie Hannagan hold a photograph of their children, Charlotte and Miles, who were killed by a drunk driver on Valentine's Day in 2015 in the Downingtown area. 
Before I knew how much emotional pain a loved one’s death could bring, I met the Iwaniec family during a DUI victim impact speech held for DUI offenders. Trooper Kenton Iwaniec was killed by a drunk driver in 2008.
“It is hard to comprehend how much emotional pain a person can stand,” The Iwaniec family stated on their website in honor of Trooper Iwaniec. “Just when we think we couldn’t possibly miss him any more, a new day comes and the pain created from the loss of Kenton is greater than the day before.”

Photo by Ginger Rae Dunbar - Ken and Debby Iwaniec hold a picture of their son, Trooper Kenton Iwaniec. He was killed by a drunk driver in 2008 in Chester County. 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

WCU and Fame Fire Company working together for the future

West Chester became my second home when I attended college with the goal of becoming a journalist. When I accepted my second newspaper job at the Daily Local News, based in West Chester, I professionally reported in my backyard again.

I worked for the student-run newspaper at West Chester University since the start of my first semester and worked until the last edition was published in my final semester. I began reporting on my alma mater with my first article about graduation, a year after mine. Most recently, I drove through the campus to get to an assignment where my two passions collided.

West Chester University representatives presented a $50,000 donation to the Fame Fire Company toward its capital project. This donation, made to Fame’s $2.5-million capital campaign, will be used to expand the engine bay to provide more space to properly house its apparatus. West Chester Borough had provided the aerial truck to Fame because of its close proximity to the West Chester University campus which has several dorms and apartments on campus.

Photo by Pete Bannan, Daily Local News - West Chester University officials present a $50,000 donation to Fame Fire Company on Feb. 2, 2017. The funds will go toward Fame's $2.5 million capital campaign. Holding the check (left to right) are: Fame campaign co-chair Bill Ronayne,University President Chris Fiorentino, West Chester Borough Manager Mike Cotter and Fame Fire Company President Don Powers. 

I remember seeing the fire trucks arrive nearby the dorms a few times when smoke alarms were tripped. It seemed like it was always burnt food, usually popcorn. That’s not surprising for a college environment.

There are 12 WCU students who are Fame firefighters and one professor. I met Fame Lt. Martin Helmke at the check presentation and heard someone make a comment about his career. When he mentioned that he works at the university, adjacent from the firehouse, he added that it’s a good school. I agreed with him and told him I graduated from there in 2012. He congratulated me for having a job in the field I studied and said, “See, it’s a good school.” He was among the few members that I interviewed about the donation and the capital campaign.

“I’m really proud to be a part of the West Chester University community and see that,” Helmke told me as he pointed at the check.

As I wrote that down, I smiled and told him, “I’m proud too.”

I’m proud of firefighters, even if I don’t know them. It’s because of the decision they made to serve. I had learned about Fame Fire Company No. 3 over the past few years, after covering parades. Fame has 52 active members, all who have firefighter one national certification. The West Chester Fire Department – which includes First West Chester and Good Will – require that members are certified. That impressed me a few years ago when I learned what that meant. But after going through fire school and earning that certification, I understood how much work it took to achieve that. The “firefighter one” program involves more than 200 hours of lectures and training.

I didn’t want to be a firefighter when I was in college, but some days I wish I had. Live-in programs, such as the one Fame has in agreement with the university, is becoming a recruitment tool. Part of the campaign project is to build a live-in space, for men and women. When completed, students who are Fame firefighters will have a single room and the rest of the crew will stay in a bunk room. Currently if the members spend the night during a snowstorm, they sleep on mattresses on the ground in the station banquet hall. At my station we only do that when an overflow from the bunk room is needed for a sleeping area in our training room.

Fame’s expansion will also safely house its apparatus, as well as two trailers full of rescue equipment. The engine bay was just as crowded as they described, with four pieces of apparatus parked closely together with gear racks positioned in between.

I have seen old photos of my one-story station. Compared to the two-story station we have now with a training room, fitness room, bunk room, showers and more space to house apparatus, I thought of my fellow firefighters when they talk about the changes. It makes us appreciate what we have, even though it’s all some of us have known.