Modern-day superheroes – Vaughan

Fourteen brave men and women were recently bestowed with Public Heroes GTA 2016 Awards for their outstanding commitment in police, fire and paramedic services. We spoke to five of them about what it means to be recognized and how they’re making a difference in the lives of those in their communities.

1. Michael Fennell
BRAMPTON FIRE & EMERGENCY SERVICES

“They don’t really put a lot of the bad stuff in the [firefighting] brochures. We don’t really talk about it to the outside world, so volunteering and going back to the community is kind of a good thing. A thumbs-up from a 10-year-old makes it all worth it.”

If you could say one thing about Michael Fennell, it would be that he cares. A lot. A firefighter with Brampton Fire and Emergency Services, this can be seen in every aspect of his life, although he is incredibly modest about it. Fennell, who is involved with The Journey — a community project in Brampton’s Ardglen neighbourhood — and the Reel Youth mentorship program, received the award 13 years to the day he started with the fire service.

He says he found it hard to accept the award as an individual, however, because everything he does is as a teammate. “It was nice to be recognized but … this show does not happen without the team on the trucks and what I do, what I think I do, day in and day out, is nothing different than anyone on these trucks,” he says.

“The team is everything,” he adds.

2. Jon Carson
YORK REGIONAL POLICE

“Doing this job, or being a part of this job or community law enforcement, you actually have the ability every day — and I know that this is going to sound corny, but — to make a difference.”

Const. Jon Carson is bringing mindful meditation to the York Regional Police force. After spending four years in therapies after being diagnosed with PTSD in 2009, Carson was handed a magazine about mindfulness. On the cover? An officer, much like himself, speaking about meditation. The magazine marked a turning point in Carson’s life, and he began practising mindfulness and meditation, first individually, before bringing it to the police force.

Today, Carson, a training and academic instructor, works with various officers in the force, teaching them how to incorporate mindfulness into their everyday lives and policing. “If you’re able to ground yourself with breathing exercises, you come to respond more in difficult situations as opposed to reacting,” he says.

He adds that instilling the values of meditation into the force is also about starting a dialogue in the policing community. “I think it has the ability to create a lasting impact to change policing, and change humanity for that matter.”

3. Tamara Sylvan
TORONTO FIRE SERVICES

“Even if we’re just driving down the street and we pull over because we have to pick something up or have to get fuel, people rush over with their kids to look at the fire truck. They know nothing about you, but they just think you’re amazing. I feel so much pride in that.”

Tamara Sylvan says becoming a firefighter is like winning the lottery, but from the looks of it, the fire service is just as lucky to have her. Growing up, Sylvan says it never crossed her mind to become a firefighter. It wasn’t until someone suggested it to her over 16 years ago that she began considering it. For a year after that, Sylvan did everything she could to gain experience and see if firefighting was for her. Among many things, she went rock climbing to see if she could handle heights, got her scuba licence to experience breathing on a tank and confined spaces, and volunteered in a hospital emergency room.

Sylvan, who has now been with Toronto Fire Services for 15 years, is a volunteer with Toronto Fire’s Toy Drive and its Post-Fire Assistance Program, and says the feeling of fulfilment is why she puts in so many hours, both through her work as a firefighter and a volunteer in her off-hours.

“There hasn’t been a morning where I’ve woken up and been like, ‘Oh my God, I have to work today,’” she says. “I don’t know if there’s anything better in the world than that.”

4. Michelle Vivian
PEEL REGIONAL POLICE

“If I can reach one child, save one child, then I’ve done my job. I’ve done exactly what I’ve said I would do. I’ve protected these kids, and it’s my goal to try and protect as many children as I can from the world that’s out there.”

Const. Michelle Vivian of the Peel Regional Police is in it for the kids, and because of her, they’re a lot safer. An officer for 28 years, Vivian has spent 12 of those teaching children Grades 1-3 at the Peel Children’s Safety Village. “The best part of my job is walking into my classroom every day and looking at those 30 kids … it seems like the only people in that world at that second are those 30 kids and me, and there’s nothing else around and that is it,” she says. Vivian’s passion of helping children expands much further than the classroom though, evident in her everyday life. She tells a story of how she was shopping in Walmart on a day off and noticed a grandparent trying to buy a helmet for her grandchild. She saw that they were struggling so she offered help. “I talked to them, I picked out the helmet, I fit the helmet for him, and I’m not even working,” she says. Vivian sees her strong community involvement as an extension of her job. “I don’t know; I just do it all the time. I love it,” she laughs.

5. David Whitley
YORK REGION PARAMEDIC SERVICES

“It’s not my emergency, it’s the patient’s emergency, and I’m there for them.”

It seems David Whitley was born to help people. Growing up, Whitley was ski instructor, later becoming a paramedic and a nurse. Speaking with Whitley, his calm, yet strong demeanour makes it seem as if his 30-plus years in paramedic services were always smooth sailing, but he tells another story.

In 2002, Whitley was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after an ambulance rollover. “I was angry and vulnerable and I had lost the perspective, the calling of the job that I was there for … I was too traumatized myself to be able to give up myself,” he says. After receiving help, Whitley was able to use his experience to help others, which he continues today as a member of both the York Region Paramedic Services and CISM Peer Support Teams, groups which support peers in good times and bad. When asked why he helps, Whitley answers, “We see things that are wonderful and we see things that are traumatic, so I don’t want to forget about my peers that are impacted. I don’t want to forget about myself that is impacted. We’re in this together.”

PHOTOS BY CARLOS ARTURO PINTO

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