Staff Photo: John Bohn Fran Stewart, left, is a volunteer at Gwinnett Fire Services headquarters. Stewart works closely with Karla Richter, right, a Fire and Life Safety educator.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- Like many of us, Fran Stewart has a tremendous respect for firefighters.
That's why she has jumped at the chance to help those that are often the first to help others in their time of need.
And while the 66-year-old writer can't handle a firehose or pull a child from a burning building, she can help pass out smoke detectors and set up a spreadsheet for CPR tests.
"I just love the fire services. Firefighters are all about helping people," Stewart said, as she sat at a desk at Gwinnett Fire Headquarters with a pile of paperwork ready to input into a computer. "I can do this," she said of the work. "This is something I can help with."
Karla Richter, who is a fire educator for the department, said Stewart's help creating the spreadsheet for CPR exams enables the educators to know if their message is getting through, and it could even help the department get a grant.
"We can focus on giving that quality program," Richter said. "Fran can do all the things that we don't have time to do."
The Lawrenceville woman first became involved in the fire department when she joined the Citizens Fire Academy to research one of her books. After she graduated in the fall, she became a station ambassador and found other ways she could help out.
Stewart is just one of the more than 40,000 people who lent their time in 2012 to the county government as part of the Volunteer Gwinnett program.
Since hiring a coordinator a year and a half ago, the volunteer program has already come close to reaching its ultimate goal of 1 million volunteer hours.
While officials had hoped to reach the million milestone in 2015, the 2012 volunteer effort came close, with 991,122 hours donated in the program's first full year.
"Gwinnett folks never cease to amaze me with their willingness to tackle the challenges we face," Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said of the inaugural success. "The community's response to our Volunteer Gwinnett program is one more example of how Gwinnett residents and businesses get involved to make things better."
While about 700,000 of those volunteer hours come from residents helping with youth sports leagues and other parks and recreation activities, the county's needs are varied, from administrative work to helping seniors or shelving library books.
Kay Sibetta, the county's part-time volunteer coordinator, said the reasons for volunteering are as varied as the people who do it.
"Many want to give back or help to make a difference in their community or county. Volunteer Gwinnett allows them the opportunity to do that," Sibetta said, adding that some work with groups or organizations, some are fulfilling academic requirements and some are assigned by a judge. "People love the connections and relationships they make while volunteering for the county. Volunteers may come in thinking one way about how the county works or operates and then they get so amazed by how much they didn't know about what their county does every day to make it safer, healthier, cleaner and more competitive in the marketplace. Volunteer Gwinnett offers residents the unique opportunity to be a volunteer in numerous departments and work alongside staff to make Gwinnett the best county in Georgia."
While most people sign up online at volunteergwinnett.net, Sibetta said there is no "typical" volunteer.
"Our typical volunteers are typical residents of Gwinnett: they are young and old; they have lived here for many years; they are newcomers; they are employed and unemployed; they are in school and in college; they come from diverse ethnic backgrounds; and they speak multiple languages," Sibetta said. "Our volunteers are truly a reflection of our diverse county."
When Dee Wilson married and left her native Philippines for life in the United States three years ago, she didn't know enough about U.S. corporate laws to find a job in her field of human resources.
But she still has the skills, and she wanted to give back to her new community. So she signed up to volunteer, finding a new way to give back giving her time to the county government's HR department.
"Volunteering gives me a chance to change lives, including my own," Wilson said, adding that she has found new friends and acclimated to her new country through her work helping file and organize for the government.
The county's employees have also benefited greatly from Wilson's work organizing training manuals and materials to set up a library, where staffers can further their careers, Sibetta said.
And Stewart's impact hasn't just been felt by the administrators at fire headquarters.
A few months ago, she helped fill a need that the firefighters from one of the stations experienced: a lack of smoke alarms and general fire safety knowledge in some of the county's poorer communities.
So, with the few fire educators and firefighters on staff, she participated in a smoke alarm distribution day at a mobile home complex.
"It stops deaths from happening. You never know how many lives you can save," Stewart said of her work that day.
She isn't a firefighter, but she may have saved a life.
For Nash, the work of the volunteers is invaluable, since the county's limited financial resources could mean that some of the community's needs aren't met.
"I want to say 'thank you' to every individual and every organization who served in some area of county government on a volunteer basis," Nash said. "Your involvement makes a great difference in how all of us can meet the community's needs despite financial limitations. We thought we had set a very ambitious goal, but you proved us wrong."