Mother Volunteers Recognized by Hopewell Township Fire Commissioners for Contributions to Valley Fire Departments and Emergency Medical Units

    Bender family apple picking

    A moving message of appreciation for mother-volunteers throughout Hopewell Valley from the Hopewell Township Board of Fire Commissioners:

    When someone in Hopewell Valley needs help, chances are high that a mother will be among the EMTs or firefighters answering the call, or will be providing important support services behind the scenes.

    This Mother’s Day, the Hopewell Township Board of Fire Commissioners wants to give special recognition to the moms who gear up and get on the fire truck, comfort and provide medical treatment to hurt neighbors or strangers, or raise money to buy everything from fire hoses to firehouse kitchen equipment. And the Fire Commissioners also want to invite other women to join this group of exceptional volunteers.

    Skills learned through motherhood apply to emergency situations

    Motherhood is an excellent training ground for a first responder, say a group of Hopewell Valley women who are both mothers and emergency responders.

    “Mothers are used to creating order from chaos, managing their stress and everyone else’s, and generally making situations better,” said Hopewell Township Board of Fire Commissioners Chairman Michael Chipowsky. “Every one of our emergency units could use those skills.”

    “The ability to stay calm and be calming under pressure is very helpful,” said Pennington First Aid Squad EMT Sarah Hopkins, the mom of Annie, 22, and Daniel, 14. “And there are children who are scared but will come to you because they just sense you’re all about helping them.”

    Sarah Hopkins, Pennington First Aid Squad EMT, with her son Daniel and cat Sasha

    Motherhood has also helped prepare some for blood or other bodily substances one might encounter in an emergency.

    “I swear, I’m not grossed out by anything anymore, now that that I have kids,” said Lt. Audra Tunison, a Hopewell Emergency Medical Unit EMT and the mom of Lily, 7, and Leah, 4.

    The parents of hurt or sick children also benefit from her mom experience, said Carolyn “Charlie” Bender, an EMT with the Hopewell Emergency Medical Unit.

    “As a mom, you can absolutely understand how that parent is reacting, and understand why this may be very difficult for them,” Bender said. “At the same time, you can explain things in such a way that makes good sense to them. I always say, ‘I want you to know that I will treat your child as though they are mine.’”

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    Bender Family Apple Picking: Hopewell Emergency Medical Unit EMT Carolyn “Charlie” Bender, second from right, with husband Michael Bender, son Tyler Bender, daughter Elisabeth Peters, family friend Chuck Pisano, daughter Victoria Kafka and daughter Katharine Bender in front

    Bender’s own kids are Victoria, 26; Tyler, 21; Elisabeth, 16; and Katharine, 11, in the “yours, mine and ours” blended family of Bender and her husband, Michael. (Michael and Tyler are Hopewell volunteer firefighters.) Some of Bender’s empathy comes from her own family’s experience on the receiving end of medical care. Katharine is a Type I diabetic – a fact discovered two years ago after a near-fatal drop in her blood glucose level that resulted in four days in the hospital. She’s doing great, but must regularly monitor her blood sugar. Bender helps her daughter take those measurements every two-to-three hours, around the clock. Service dog Pandora’s nose is always on duty.

    Helping others helps at home

    The volunteering moms of Hopewell Valley also say the skills they have learned through volunteering have aided them in caring for their own families.

    “This knowledge and experience makes you absolutely a more confident parent, whether your child is of pediatric age or adult age,” Bender said. “Having the skills to understand and treat injury and illness definitely takes away that nervous edge when your child is sick.”

    Sarah Hopkins, who is a real estate agent with Berkshire Hathaway Fox & Roach Realtors of Princeton, has used the Heimlich maneuver three times when her children were toddlers, saving them from choking on hot dogs, broccoli and gummy worms. This past Thanksgiving, just after grace, her husband’s mother began to choke and indicated she needed help.

    Sarah Hopkins, Pennington First Aid Squad EMT, with her son Daniel, husband Chris, and daughter Annie

    “My husband stands up, turns to me and says, ‘Do your thing!’ and I said, ‘I’m already on it, get out of my way!’” recounted Hopkins. Fueled with adrenaline, Hopkins wrapped her arms around her mother-in-law’s midsection and forcefully pulled upward, lifting her off her feet. The turkey came flying out on the first try, and as suddenly as it started, the crisis was over.

    “My brother-in-law said, ‘Thanks for saving mom,’ and I said, ‘It’s just what I do.’”

    Balancing work, family, volunteering

    Audra Tunison, a registered nurse who works part-time for Princeton Public Schools, is part of Hopewell EMU’s Tuesday night crew, which means she is one of the volunteers on call for any emergency between 7 p.m. Tuesday and 6 a.m. Wednesday. She also responds to calls during the day and on weekends whenever possible. Sometimes, that means a change in family plans.

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    Lt. Audra Tunison, a Hopewell Emergency Medical Unit EMT, with daughters Lily and Leah

    On a recent Saturday, Tunison’s family was planning to go hiking when her pager went off. Someone was in cardiac arrest. Tunison would not be hiking that day.

    “I couldn’t do it without the support of my husband, Greg,” she said. “If I get a page on Saturday, he knows I’m going to go. And the girls are good about it, too,” she said. “They know if mommy’s pager goes off, mommy has to go help somebody.”

    This dedication doesn’t mean Tunison or other volunteers don’t ever take a weekend off. She and other volunteers discuss their plans to make sure enough people will be around to respond.

    Volunteers raising the next generation

    Union Rescue Squad Deputy Chief Annmarie Soganic’s three children always thought it was cool that their mom not only helped people, but got to regularly ride in an ambulance. They are grown now, and it’s Soganic’s turn to be impressed: Her son Michael, who volunteers as both a Union Fire Company Firefighter and a Union Rescue Squad EMT, was formerly Union Rescue’s Deputy Chief. Then her daughter, Michelle, took over the role, before handing the reins to their mom. (Michelle’s own families’ needs have taken her out of state, but she continues to volunteer in an administrative role.)

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    Annemarie Soganic, Union Rescue Squad Deputy Chief

    Having her children follow her into the fire service made her “ecstatic,” shared Soganic. “And when my father found out that not only his daughter, but two of his grandchildren are doing it? He was just in heaven.” Both Soganic’s father and grandfather had active roles in Princeton Hook and Ladder and Princeton First Aid, which her grandfather helped found.

    “I’ve gone on quite a few calls with both of my children, and that was pretty cool,” said Soganic, who also substitutes as a paid ambulance driver for Hopewell Valley Emergency Services and works as a server at a local restaurant.

    “The only hard part was when they were the chiefs and I had to listen to them,” she said, laughing. “Actually, it was great to have to take orders from them to do a good job, and it made me a very proud parent.” Soganic also inspired her husband, Paul, to volunteer. He helps keep fire and rescue scenes safe and organized as a member of Union’s Fire Police team.

    Mary Thornton, a 40 year Pennington Fire Company’s Ladies Auxiliary volunteer, and her son Dwayne, a Pennington Firefighter

    Mary Thornton, who has volunteered with Pennington Fire Company’s Ladies Auxiliary for nearly 40 years, agrees with Soganic that the volunteerism of one’s children brings a tremendous sense of pride; her son, Dwayne is a Pennington Firefighter, following his mom, grandparents and great-grandfather into volunteer firefighting when he was just 16.

    Being a volunteer’s mom also brings some worry, but Thornton said her concerns are tempered by knowing her son, like all volunteers, has had extensive training, and that he is not alone when helping others. “The firefighters all look out for one another,” she said.

    So do Auxiliary members, who in addition to fundraising work that helps the department afford necessary equipment and supplies, also respond to fires with water, hot beverages, meals, or whatever else the firefighters and EMTs on scene need.

    “We work very hard when we do that. We walk all around the scene to find the firefighters and make sure they all get drinks,” Thornton said. Now that she’s 70, Thornton, who chairs the fire food committee, runs the operations from the van. The other auxiliary members “Have to report in to me so I know they are safe,” she said. “I have to know they’re ok – they are my girls, and it’s the mother hen in me.”

    Hopewell Valley needs more volunteers
    Hopewell Valley’s volunteer fire and rescue units need more volunteers in a wide variety of roles: Firefighters, emergency medical technicians, fire police, auxiliary, administrative, and more. Whatever your interest and skill set, Pennington Fire Company, Pennington First Aid Squad, Hopewell Fire Company, Hopewell First Aid Squad, Union Fire Company, or Union Rescue Squad could use your help. To learn more, visit or call 609-537-0278.

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