by Ronni Diamondstein
Women have come a long way, and nowhere is this more evident than right here in our own community. Russell Maitland, First Assistant Chief of the Chappaqua Fire Department, and Chappaqua Volunteer Ambulance Corps Captain Joe Gentilesco see their female members as part of the fabric of their organizations and no different than their male counterparts. Both volunteer organizations are comprised of selfless neighbors who carve out the time to help others in need. Our female first responders, four in the Chappaqua Fire Department and 38 in the Chappaqua Volunteer Ambulance Corps, are great examples of women who juggle family and work to give back to our community. “Two of the last four Chappaqua Volunteer Ambulance Corps Captains have been women,” says Gentilesco. “We treat everyone equally when they come through the door,” says Maitland, who expects the volunteers to know their own limits. “When they have their gear on, you cannot tell the men from the women on a call.” At this time, there are no active women volunteers in the Millwood Fire Department.
Inside Chappaqua spoke to four female first responders: Carey Vames and Annie Zabar of the Chappaqua Volunteer Ambulance Corps, and Paula Kurth and Mara Antonio of the Chappaqua Fire Department, about their experiences. Paula Kurth, who has wanted to be a firefighter since she was a little girl, jumped at the opportunity when she learned in 2010 that women could join the Chappaqua Fire Department. There are challenges, Kurth admits, particularly the physical aspects. “Firefighting itself, and the many other duties of a firefighter require a certain amount of physical fitness and stamina. I have to push myself to stay in shape to do a good job.” Kurth works around her office manager schedule to fulfill her commitment, and will go out on structure fire calls when she is at work. “If you are willing to put in the time initially for training, the required hours are very manageable.”
Carey Vames, a Chappaqua Volunteer Ambulance Corps volunteer since 2007 was looking for a medical related volunteer experience when she joined. “It is important, in a community like Chappaqua, to realize that not everyone lives like the vast majority of us,” says Vames; she believes that those who have the desire and time to devote to volunteering should do so. Vames also serves on the board of directors of Hope’s Door, the domestic violence agency. Starting out as an “Aider,” she found it so rewarding that she enrolled in the EMT course at Westchester Community College.
“It is hard for me to always fit in the expected number of hours on call each week. I work 30 hours per week in a doctor’s office and have an active family,” Vames says of the challenges she faces. Even when not on call, her EMT skills have come in handy for Vames. She was working out at Club Fit a few years ago when a 51-year-old male collapsed with cardiac arrest on a treadmill next to his 11-year-old son. “I was part of the team who administered eight cycles of CPR and got a steady heart rhythm again. He was transported to Westchester Medical Center. We watched his skin go from indigo blue back to flesh-colored.”
Annie Zabar worked in her family’s New York City business for 14 years before moving to Chappaqua, and joined the Ambulance Corps in 2010. “I have always been interested in the medical field and felt this was a good way to be part of it.” Zabar says as a woman she brings a lot of compassion and a maternal instinct to her volunteer duties. “It is especially important when you are responding to calls involving kids. And when calls involve females, it’s nice to have another woman around.” As a stay-at-home mom, she can help cover day shifts when many of the members are at work. Zabar is on call at Chappaqua Volunteer Ambulance Corps headquarters on Mondays and Wednesdays, and juggles her schedule to fulfill her Ambulance Corps duties. “I feel that I have been able to be part of helping people when they are in need. It is a fulfilling and rewarding job.” Zabar has advice for women who might consider joining her at the Chappaqua Volunteer Ambulance Corps. “Some women might be hesitant to join because of the feeling that it is too physically demanding. But it’s not any more demanding than the workouts many of us do everyday.”
When Mara Antonio worked at Susan Lawrence, Susan’s husband Michael Baker, a volunteer firefighter in Archville, urged Mara to join the Chappaqua Fire Department. “My son was in high school and I could leave him home for a few hours at time when I had to go out on a call,” says Antonio, a single parent and a volunteer since 2005. For Antonio, being a woman with a gentle touch can have its advantages. “To hold someone’s hand at an accident call and be able to see that it calms down the victim is very rewarding.” Antonio says that often people who recognize her from her work at Susan Lawrence have a sense of ease when she arrives on the scene in her turnout gear.
No story about female first responders in the town would be complete without including Muriel Lipschitz, who passed away in 2012. Lipschitz, a member of the Chappaqua Fire Department for 34 years, set the bar high for volunteer firefighters and holds the distinction as the first female volunteer in the Chappaqua Fire Department “Muriel was the epitome of a volunteer firefighter. She wasn’t trying to prove anything; she was dedicated and truly altruistic,” says Maitland.
All four women feel the volunteer experience has enriched their lives and take great pride in their work. Kurth says her grown children are very proud of her. “The Chappaqua Fire Department motto and mission statement is ‘Neighbors helping Neighbors.’ That is who we are and what we do. I believe it has been a good example to my children of real caring and commitment.” The members of the Chappaqua Fire Department and Chappaqua Volunteer Ambulance Corps all feel a strong sense of camaraderie and encourage others, both women and men, to volunteer. Zabar says it was one of the best decisions of her life.
“I have become part of a family. My fellow Chappaqua Volunteer Ambulance Corps members are some of the best and most caring people in Chappaqua.”
Ronni Diamondstein has recently added Member of the Board of Directors of the New Castle Community Media Center to her community service résumé.