As a young child, a blast shook Peter Rhodes awake one night.
A furnace explosion caused the family’s house to catch fire while Rhodes and his sister were inside.
“I was scared,” he recalled in a recent interview. “I had no clothes on, nothing like that. I got seriously burned.”
Thanks to their neighbours who called for help, Rhodes and his sister were rescued by firefighters.
Now 47 year old, Rhodes — who lives with an intellectual disability — recalls that moment as one of the things that inspired his dream of working in fire services, a dream that has finally come true.
“I felt like giving up, but I didn’t,” said Rhodes from Regina Fire & Protective Services Fire Station No. 2 where he is the first employee hired with an intellectual disability.
It hasn’t been easy for Rhodes to finally arrive at his dream job, following in the footsteps of his father who was a firefighter.
Originally from B.C., his father died when Rhodes was three years old. His mother later died of lung cancer, and Rhodes bounced around in foster care before landing in Saskatoon and eventually Regina.
For the past 10 years, he has been a client of Creative Options Regina (COR) — a non-profit organization that develops personalized support services for people with disabilities.
He has worked a few jobs around the city thanks to a program jointly operated between COR and the University of Regina’s Campus for All called 4to40, which connects people experiencing disabilities with forward-thinking employers.
But none compare to this one.
“He was so excited, even after … he went down to the fire hall for the first time,” said Donna Flaman Johnson, an inclusive employment broker for 4to40. “He left that day on top of the world.”
Rhodes works two, three-hour shifts a week helping his platoon with daily chores and inventory checks.
“Fire service is about helping people and when you hear Peter’s story, you can’t help but want to help him fulfill his dream,” said Kevin Digney, assistant chief of operations.
Starting off slow, they’ve introduced Rhodes to one platoon at station No. 2. Together, they do daily chores like sweeping, mopping, washing the trucks and hoses and more. He always has a job coach with him for guidance and so he’s not alone in the station if the platoon has to go out on a call.
His favourite part, he said, is washing tools.
Rhodes worked his third shift on Wednesday, but he has already blended into the team like he’d been there all along, sipping coffee in the kitchen and going about his tasks with quiet confidence. Everyone appeared at ease, despite how new the situation was for all of them.
He was quiet and a little shy, but broke into a hearty laugh after Digney joked about photoshopping a fellow firefighter’s lush hair onto his balding head in any photos going to press.
“I was happy,” said Rhodes of when he found out he’d got the job. “I know I can do it.”
But not everyone felt the same way. Rhodes’ roommate told him he couldn’t do it, called him a coward.
“I told him I’m … no coward,” said Rhodes, whose very presence in the station proved his old roommate wrong.
He’s doing well, said Digney, and it’s clear that the station is happy to have him as they guide him through his duties with respect and compassion.
“What they told me when I was down at the fire hall was that working for the fire department is like being part of a family,” said Flaman Johnson in an interview.
“Here they are basically bringing Peter in like he’s one of them — to support him, to encourage him, to give him new experiences and (get him to) try new things, to grow,” she added. “That’s exactly what family is all about.”
Flaman Johnson, who’s been with 4to40 since last fall, met Rhodes in early spring and has interviewed him extensively about the things he likes to do so that his work with the fire department would be meaningful, an important part of any job, for any person.
She said she loved him from the moment she met him and saw immediately the love others had for him too.
“Everybody just wanted this to work out for Peter because they know this has literally been his dream for years,” said Flaman Johnson. “I just find it so fulfilling and so inspiring when I see organizations open themselves up to this type of work arrangement.”
Seeing Rhodes in the fire station, you can tell he’s just proud to be there, she said.
And it’s a step in the right direction, said Digney, in the city’s commitment to having a diverse and inclusive workshop.
“It’s new,” said Digney. “The fire service is traditional, a lot of culture and it’s time that we have a new tradition.
“He’s been looked after very well from the guys at the station here and as we move him out to the different platoons and the different stations I have no doubt he’ll be embraced and treated as one of our own.”
Rhodes’ message to those who haven’t found their way to their own dream job yet?
“It’s not easy to come here at all,” he said. “It takes time.”
But he didn’t give up.