When I was 17, my family’s house burned down.
I was a senior at East Chapel Hill High School, and it was back-to-school night. My sister had just gone to bed, and I was working on A.P. Statistics in my room above the garage.
In the driveway, our car exploded (unsurprisingly, that particular car was later recalled), and part of it landed on the roof above me. I will never forget our lawn covered in firefighters working to exhaustion as flames stretched across the night sky. My family’s gratitude toward the Chapel Hill Fire Department has never diminished, even all these years later.
Now I am grown, living in northern Chapel Hill with a family of my own. We get our Christmas tree from the fire station down the street; it is also my polling station for voting, and we love the country breakfasts they host a couple of times a year. As I’ve grown older, I have appreciated how fire stations are such a part of our community.
Last week, I picked up my 4-year-old daughter from preschool, and she exclaimed buoyantly, “I want to be a fireman when I grow up!”
I looked at her in the rearview mirror as I drove and smiled back at her. “You would be a great firefighter!”
Her eyes lit up and she responded, “Girls can be firefighters? I didn’t think they could.”
This gave me pause. I assured her that girls could definitely be firefighters; girls are just as strong, brave, and kind as boys. But I couldn’t get her words out of my head. I have been intentional since day one to help her see there are no limits on what she can achieve. This has meant working deliberately to help her develop healthy racial and gender identity. But this moment was a reminder that that work is never done.
Back at home, an intense Google search came up short. I could find relatively no dolls or books about female firefighters; there were just a few sexy costumes. I was discouraged.
And because I believe deeply that representation matters – that we cannot be what we cannot see – I emailed Chapel Hill Interim Fire Chief Matt Sullivan and explained my quandary. Almost immediately, he replied. I was impressed when he told me that they have female firefighters on every shift, and he offered to have them give my daughter and me a tour of the station.
A few days later, on a sunny Friday afternoon, I pulled up to the fire station. Carolina blue fire trucks were parked outside as the firefighters cleaned them. The magic that fire stations have had over me ever since they came to our aide when I was 17 was still very real. But now I needed something else from them. I needed their help letting my daughter see that she could be one of them, some day, if she really wanted to.
We walked in and a small crowd gathered around us with big smiles. Chief Sullivan, firefighters, and various other people who worked in the office greeted us.
One of the female firefighters, Carmen Garci, introduced herself and showed us the wall of firefighters, pointing to the pictures of all the different female firefighters. My daughter’s eyes followed her finger, amazed.
Another female firefighter, Danielle Currin, soon joined us, and they gave us a complete tour. They told us about their lives and their jobs and showed us the different equipment, where they sleep, and the control center. My daughter sat in the fire truck and they showed us the lights, the various hoses, and the pole that firefighters slide down.
My daughter announced she wanted to drive the trucks one day, and at the end, we took a picture together, with a souvenir kid’s firefighter helmet balancing on her head. Her smile was big and the whole drive home she chatted incessantly about how she was going to be an amazing firefighter when she grows up. She hasn’t stopped talking about it since.
I don’t know what my daughter will be when she grows up. But I know that parenting is hard and raising a kid truly does take a village. The Chapel Hill Fire Department’s generosity was invaluable. I don’t know if they can ever know how powerful it is as a mom to see your daughter uplifted. We won this one, for sure. This is an age of uncertainty, where politics and society will sometimes tell kids who look like my daughter that there are things they won’t be able to do.
But not today.
Katie Mgongolwa lives in Chapel Hill. You can reach her at Katie.Mgongolwa@gmail.com.