Sometimes the regular job is just not enough.
Members of the Charlottesville Police Department and city and county fire and rescue personnel are putting their time and money into helping children and dogs as another way to serve their communities.
First responders hope their efforts will increase positive interactions with the people they serve, provide a little help for others and give warm fuzzy feelings.
For city police, it’s the Winter Wool Campaign, wherein they pay to grow their beards or paint their fingernails in order to support the pediatric cancer department at the University of Virginia Children’s Hospital.
For firefighters, it’s Operation Fire Paws, which gives the public a chance to join them in providing food, blankets, collars and comfort to rescued canines through Dogs Deserve Better, a local, state and national voice for chained, penned, abused and neglected dogs.
“It’s really a no-brainer,” said Charlottesville Fire Chief Andrew Baxter of the department’s effort. “It gives people a chance to come by the fire stations, interact with firefighters and serve the canine community. And it makes you feel good to help.”
Baxter said that helping pets is a part of the department’s role in protecting the community at-large.
“Our role is to take care of the most vulnerable in society. The person who is having a seizure, the person who is trapped in their vehicle during an accident, the person whose house is on fire and is in danger of losing everything they own,” he said.
“Pets are a part of that. All of our trucks have oxygen masks designed to fit pets because pets are important to people,” he said. “This effort also came up just after we had the fire at Pet Paradise where we had numerous pets we needed to rescue. In a lot of ways, Dogs Deserve Better is doing similar work to help those animals who are most vulnerable.”
The city police effort to get woolly for the kids is easier this year than last, officers say. Last year they collected about $6,500 on their four-month effort and they have so far collected $4,000 in just a month. They hope to make it to $10,000 by March.
Officers pay $25 a month to the cause in exchange for getting fuzzy. Female officers can participate in exchange for wearing nail polish, which is normally not allowed.
“It’s really a win-win for us because we get to grow beards and we get to help out the kids at the hospital and there’s really no better cause,” said Corporal Robbie Oberholzer, sporting a close-cropped beard.
“Some guys grow beards because they like the way it looks and how it evens out their facial features and other grow them because they normally can’t,” Oberholzer said. “It’s great for morale and it’s a great cause.”
It’s also a way to set officers apart from the traditional military-like look of police departments and more in keeping with changing societal norms such as beards, piercings and tattoos.
“It’s always been a policy to not grow a beard because beards were not considered professional but society is changing,” said Corporal Jacob Bowlin, whose beard offsets his shaved head. “In a lot of ways, the beard helps give an officer a different look. It gives people something to talk with us about and this we don’t all look alike.”
The beards reflect a big change in the police world. In the 1960s, military haircuts and clean shaven faces were required. In the 1970s and 1980s, moustaches were accepted. In the 2000s, tattoos became more acceptable.
“A lot of departments nowadays are allowing different styles and allowing officers to better reflect the community,” Oberholzer said. “I like having a beard and I’m grateful to the department for letting us grow them almost half the year. But we’re not paying to grow beards, we’re growing beards to call attention to the pediatric cancer center. It feels good to help.”
Operation Fire Paws is modeled after a similar program run by the Arlington Fire Department and is spearheaded locally by the Dogs Deserve Better Blue Ridge chapter. The organization works to provide assistance to families with dogs living chained outdoors, including building fences, providing shelter or, in some cases, taking the dogs in, fostering them and finding them new homes.
Operation Fire Paws came to Baxter and Albemarle County Fire Rescue Chief Dan Eggleston via Celeste Baldino, a dispatcher and supervisor at the regional Emergency Communications Center.
Baldino is an admitted dog lover and canine foster parent for the organization who saw the Northern Virginia program and wondered if it could be done locally.
“I love dogs. I’ve always had dogs and I have a special place for pit bulls because they have such a bad rap and can be very loving and affectionate animals,” Baldino said. “I know the chiefs through work and I just sent them an email asking if they’d be interested. It was a lot easier than I thought.”
“I’ve always had a dog and I hope we can get a lot of good response for this. Anything we can do to help with the health and well-being of anything, pets or people, is a good thing,” Eggleston said. “It’s a feel-good effort and the firefighters are excited to be part of it.”
Police and fire personnel are giving the community a chance to join them. To contribute to the Winter Wool campaign, go to get-involved.uvahealth.com.
To help out with the Operation Fire Paws, donate at the Monticello fire station at Founders Place; Hollymead fire station at Innovation Drive, Ivy fire station at 640 Kirtley, Ridge Street fire station at 203 Ridge Street and Fontaine Avenue, 2420 Fontaine Avenue.
Among needed items are leashes, harnesses, collars, adult dog food, dog coats, pee pads, dog beds and flea and tick medications. Go to dogsdeservebetterblueridge.org for more information.