Winters Fire volunteers bring heart to their community

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Since 1902, the Winters Fire Department has served the town through its core values of S.P.I.R.I.T. Service, Professionalism, Integrity, Respect, Innovation and Trust. This has been exemplified over the years with an amazing pedigree of volunteers who dedicate themselves to the safety of residence, as well as bringing light to local youth through the orchestration of their annual Gifts for Kids toy drive.

Originally, fire departments were comprised of hardy hometown volunteers excited to toss buckets of water on fire. As the years passed and towns grew, fire departments grew more organized and developed paid positions. Volunteers, however, remain crucial to the success of fire departments everywhere – especially the WFD.

“We rely heavily on our volunteers for staffing and have two programs. One is the reserve program which focuses on volunteers who’ve had official training through the academy or other formal training,” explained Operations & Training Captain Matt Schechla. “We also have a resident program for those who live in – what we like to say – a Winters zip code. They don’t require formal training, but it requires more of a time commitment.”

Modernity makes volunteering far more difficult than it used to be. Hours of training are required, certificates must be earned and state bureaucracy must be adhered to. These requisites may be a burden to some volunteers’ who are going to college or working multiple jobs.

Regardless, the WFD program remains strong, filled with selfless individuals wanting to serve their town.

“One of the hardest things for someone to ask is ‘why be a firefighter?’ ‘Are you willing to get out of bed in the middle of the night or leave holidays to go help someone?’ It’s tough to answer, but when you find people like them, they’re truly gold,” said Schechla. “Our goal is to make people better than when they show up. We train, work on education and have a high success rate of getting them hired in other departments. It’s good and bad because we lose them pretty quickly.”

Justin Rominger is one such resident volunteer that embodies what the WFD is all about and has chosen to keep serving his hometown.

“It’s been eye opening, challenging and incredibly rewarding,” Rominger said explaining his experience volunteering. “People are always happy to help and answer questions. The department also does their best to accommodate what we have going on in our lives and careers.”

While volunteers come and go, none have quite matched the dedication of the 2019 citizens of the year, Terry and Barbara Karlen. With Terry clocking in 36 years of volunteer service and Barb at 34.

“Back in the early days when we first started, it was like a big family and everybody were volunteers. We did everything together and went out and fought fires and came home,” said Terry. “It didn’t seem like we were doing anything outstanding when we started. We were just helping and doing what we could for the town.”

Very much a family affair for the Karlens, Terry first started volunteering to spend time with his son Ron who was also a firefighter. Soon after, Barbara joined in the family labor. In over three decades of volunteering, it’s serving with his son that’s most memorable.

“At one point when Ronnie was still with the WFD, I got to go out on a couple of strike teams with him and that was a lot of fun,” recalled Terry. “Just being able to work with him was the most rewarding.”

Winters Fire is actively seeking community members and those who have an interest in pursuing a career in the fire service. Interested individuals can fill out an interest form and Winters Fire will follow up to share details about their volunteer opportunities. Find the Resident/Reserve Volunteer Interest Form at bit.ly/3oJmwyH.

Gifts for Kids program
Beyond the exhaustive efforts given by the volunteers year-round, the holidays are particularly special as they host their annual Gifts for Kids toy drive. Although the absence of the Tractor Parade mired the drive’s success last year, Fleet/Facilities & EMS Captain Cheyne Baumgart is excited to collect and deliver toys to impoverished children in the town.

“We’re excited to have it back. The Tractor Parade brings the community together and something we look forward to as a department,” Baumgart said. “People coming out and making holiday memories is something we support and look forward to being a part of. It also helps out reaching people for donations”

What’s special about Gift for Kids is that it serves those who live in Winters. The program underwent a name change in 2019 and is now officially called “Gifts for Kids.” Prevention Captain Art Mendoza said there were challenges with the old name which was being confused with the U.S. Marine Corps Toys for Tots program. 

While the local area’s Marines toy donation program serves all of Yolo County, some Winters families, due to hardships, may be unable to make the drive to Woodland to participate. Gifts for Kids directly serves those who live at a Winters residence.

Typically, the Tractor Parade is a huge pull for toy donations. The WFD also hosts a ‘Fill the Boot’ event every year where donors literally fill a fireman’s boot with money so they can buy toys. On top of that, local businesses also set up donation bins for people to drop off toys. One can also be found – of course – at the fire station itself at 700 W Main St.

Although there are no definitive dates yet established for this year’s toy drive events, Baumgart ensures they’ll be announced soon on the WFD’s social media accounts.

“We’re trying something new for the first time. In the past, we’ve used paper donation application forms for families wanting to receive gifts. This year we’re trying an electronic Google document form,” said Baumgart. “If that doesn’t work, or if applicants don’t have an email address, we still have paper forms. We’re just trying to make it easier for everybody, but if we have to, we’re willing and prepared to help people fill out their paper forms.”

For families wanting to receive toys, applications are due by Dec 3. Donations, however, are accepted all the way up until Christmas Eve.

“This is one of the most fulfilling events I’ve done in my career. One of our associates dresses up as Santa, we put a nice backdrop up and families come and pick up toys and get donuts, hot coffee and take pictures with Santa,” Baumgart remarked. “It’s a day we get together and do something we’re all excited about and help people out.”

Even though receiving gifts feels good, it’s nothing compared to giving them. With the help of the community, hopefully the WFD’s Gifts for Kids toy drive will be more successful than ever!

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