Local Heroes Honored at Ninth Annual Valley Preferred Spirit of Courage Awards Celebration
ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Residents of northern and northeastern Pennsylvania were honored for acts of heroism and exemplary leadership in fire safety or burn prevention education at the ninth annual Valley Preferred Spirit of Courage Award Celebration, held under a tented venue at the Lehigh Valley Hospital – Muhlenberg on October 14, 2014.
Valley Preferred, the Burn Prevention Network and Lehigh Valley Health Network launched the Valley Preferred Spirit of Courage award program in 2006 to honor local people who have risked their lives to save others from a burn or death by fire. Valley Preferred sponsors the program to raise public awareness regarding burn safety and prevention in an effort to deliver Better Health, Better Care, and Better Cost to the community.
“We recognize the sacrifice that first responders make to keep us safe,” said Dr. Jack Lenhart, executive director of Valley Preferred. “They give up time that could be spent with their families. They confront danger on a daily basis, and their loved ones face uncertainty every time they respond to a call. Valley Preferred is honored to join in efforts to recognize their remarkable acts of courage, and to support ongoing fire safety and burn prevention education, in our mutual mission of keeping our communities healthy and safe.”
In this ninth year of the Valley Preferred Spirit of Courage award program, heroes were nominated by first responders or private citizens for brave acts or education performed between June 1, 2013, and May 31, 2014.
“None of our awardees this evening performed their selfless acts to receive recognition,” said B. Daniel Dillard, executive director and CEO of the Burn Prevention Network, during his opening remarks. “In fact, we had to persuade many of them to accept the recognition we are about to bestow upon them. By doing so they remind us all that the Spirit of Courage and goodness resides in each of us.”
The evening’s honorees were as follows:
PARTNERS IN PREVENTION AWARD
Donald M. Christ
Community Fire Company of New Tripoli
Nominated by Peter Christ, fire chief, Community Fire Company of New Tripoli
Donald Christ has been keeping New Tripoli residents and firefighters safe for four decades. He was assistant fire chief for Community Fire Company of New Tripoli for 35 years before stepping out of that role and into his current role as safety officer. But his prevention efforts began long before he became safety officer. His programs for Northwest Elementary School, day care centers, churches, scout troops and others always have included takeaways for adults as well as children. He speaks to roughly 200 elementary-age students every year, focusing on escape plans, smoke detectors, what to do and where to meet in case of a fire, electrical hazards and candle safety. His creative, hands-on approach gives children the opportunity to create their own escape plans with a layout and stickers, literally bringing his lessons home.
VALLEY PREFERRED SPIRIT OF COURAGE AWARDS
Jason and Kevin Soto
Nominated by John Bast, chief, Easton Fire Department
When Jason Soto was roused from sleep at 1:30 a.m. last September by the sound of shattering glass, he thought someone was breaking into the Easton duplex he shared with his wife and three children. He quickly discovered that the other side of the building was on fire. After getting his family safely outside, he heard yelling from a third-floor window. He and his son Kevin raced back inside to find a woman with a baby on a thin ledge, with flames at their backs. Jason climbed out on the ledge, grabbed the baby and handed him to Kevin. Jason then went back and brought the woman to safety. Three people died in this tragic fire, but it would have been worse if Jason and Kevin had not risked their lives to save these two.
Firefighter Jim Baran
Firefighter Chad Gruver
Firefighter Jorge Rivera
Easton Fire Department
Nominated by Henry Hennings, captain, Easton Fire Department
These three firefighters arrived at the chaotic early morning fire on Spring Garden Street in Easton just as Jason Soto began his third-floor rescue. The heat, smoke and flames emanating from the apartment were intense. They assisted the Sotos with the two victims they had rescued while beginning the search for additional victims reportedly trapped inside. They found an unconscious woman, whom they brought out through extreme conditions to waiting EMS crews.
Officer Jeffrey Keifer
Officer Sean Stark
Forks Township Police Department
Nominated by Charles Chapman, chief, Forks Township Fire Department
While responding to a domestic disturbance in October at the historic Mineral Springs Hotel just north of Easton, Officers Keifer and Stark arrived to find the large three-story hotel engulfed in flames. They went from room to room, kicking down doors and alerting residents to leave. They carried out one man who was unable to walk. Both officers suffered smoke inhalation in the massive fire. The fire destroyed 11 apartments, six boarding rooms and the Mineral Springs Bar & Grill.
Nominated by Claude Kohl Jr., Allentown, Pa., former assistant chief, Allentown
While canvassing South Allentown neighborhoods to “get out the vote” just before the November election, this young college student spotted a fire in the garage of a home. She ran into the burning garage to find the resident under a car he had been working on, with his legs on fire. She quickly pulled him to safety and put out the fire with a garden hose, seconds before the car erupted in flames. She and her colleagues also helped get the homeowner’s wife out of the burning house and even banged on neighbors’ doors to alert them.
Lt. Vincent Chitswara
Capt. Daniel Leshko
McAdoo Fire Company
Nominated by Eugene Rosato, chief, McAdoo Fire Company
Members of the McAdoo Fire Company had just started cleaning up after their annual bazaar in June when they smelled smoke. When they discovered heavy smoke coming from a second-floor window of a home across the street from the firehouse, the crew sprang into action. While some members donned gear and went for equipment, others went to the house. Lt. Chitswara led a team to the rear of the house, where they evacuated two people. Upon being told there was still a child in the house, Chitswara entered the second-floor bedroom with zero visibility and no hose line. He brought out the unconscious child, who was resuscitated in the street. Meanwhile, Capt. Leshko entered the second-floor window in the front of the house to find a nearly unconscious woman. He became disoriented when the victim dislodged his mask. Once his mask was secured he was able to remove the then unconscious woman. Four people were evacuated from the fire. Sadly, the 6-year-old girl later died. Had it not been for Chitswara, Leshko and the rest of the team, four people would have died that day. The loss of the girl was especially tragic for the McAdoo firefighters as her father had been a member of the company before he moved from the area, and she had been a regular presence at the firehouse.
THE PHOENIX AWARD
Leo and Michelle Woelkers
Nominated by Sigrid Blome-Eberwein, MD, surgeon, and Elizabeth Dideon-Hess, clinical social worker, Regional Burn Center, Lehigh Valley Health Network; and Lori Ferdock, burn survivor
Four years ago, Michelle Woelkers’ life took a dramatically different turn when she was awakened in the early hours by a knock on the door. There had been an accident. Her husband, Leo, an electrical worker, had been called out to restore power in a Wilkes-Barre neighborhood. While he was working in an underground vault, a switch malfunctioned and exploded, saturating Leo with oil and engulfing him in flames. He sustained third-degree burns over 65 percent of his body. Doctors weren’t sure he would survive. If he did, he would likely lose both legs. Leo spent four months in a medically induced coma in the Lehigh Valley Health Network Regional Burn Center and another four months in rehabilitation. He did not lose his legs, but had to endure years of painful and tedious rehabilitation to improve his strength, mobility and functionality. Michelle remained by his side through many surgeries and difficult treatments, all the while serving as his greatest cheerleader and caregiver – and parenting their two teenage children.
Through debilitating pain, Leo was determined to walk again. His positive spirit and perseverance were an inspiration to everyone the Woelkers encountered. Together, their strength, attitude and honesty have helped many burn survivors through the LVHN burn survivor support group and LunchBunch program, the Phoenix Society’s national SOAR program, and Camp Susquehanna for children who are burn survivors. Along with their daughter, they speak to physical therapy graduate students and nursing students to help them gain a better understanding of what patients and families experience. They have been active in the Great Balls of Fire Dodgeball Tournament, and Leo volunteers for virtually every research study, from yoga to laser scar treatments. He participates in these procedures to give back to the burn team and to help advance the science of scar management and recovery for future burn patients. The Woelkers’ ongoing quest to provide comfort, meaningful information and peace of mind to others has helped countless survivors and families get through life-changing events, knowing they’re not alone.
Photos courtesy of the Burn Prevention Network.
About Burn Prevention Network
The Burn Prevention Network was incorporated in 1987 to provide prevention and fire safety education to and advocacy for those at greatest risk of burn injuries. In addressing this mission, the Burn Prevention Network serves as a connecting point to those who are charged with fire suppression; triage and transport of burn victims; regional burn critical care; public safety professionals; professional educators; and the general public. The Network offers a wide variety of targeted fire safety and burn prevention programs, media awareness alerts, legislative advocacy, and support of burn survivors. Visit www.burnprevention.org.
About Lehigh Valley Health Network
Lehigh Valley Health Network includes four hospital facilities - two in Allentown, one in Bethlehem and one in Hazleton, Pa.; 11 health centers caring for communities in five counties; numerous primary and specialty care physician practices throughout the region; pharmacy, imaging, home health services and lab services; and preferred provider services through Valley Preferred. Specialty care includes: trauma care at the region’s busiest, most-experienced trauma center treating adults and children, burn care at the regional Burn Center, kidney and pancreas transplants; perinatal/neonatal, cardiac, cancer care, and neurology and complex neurosurgery capabilities including national certification as a Comprehensive Stroke Center. Children’s Hospital at Lehigh Valley Hospital, the only children’s hospital in the region, provides care in 28 specialties and general pediatrics. Lehigh Valley Health Network has been recognized by US News & World Report for 19 consecutive years as one of America’s Best Hospitals and is a national Magnet hospital for excellence in nursing. Additional information is available at lvhn.org and by following us on facebook.com/LVHealthNetwork and twitter.com/LVHN_MediaTeam.