“When I was a child, my mother did not want me. She told me as much and was often verbally and physically rough. Many nights, I would lie in the dark, small & afraid, with only God to protect me.“
Michel (Shelly) DeLisle
Shelly, as she likes to be called is a Christian believer who was born in Waukegan , Illinois, USA. Shelly studied Interpersonal Communications/International Affairs at Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI where she also played Division I volleyball & ran Division I track. After graduating with a Bachelor’s of Arts in Communication, she joined the Peace Corps and served as an agroforestry volunteer in Niger, West Africa.
Upon returning, Shelly continued traveling as an international flight attendant until she married Jim, currently the Vice President of Manufacturing at Imperial Printing. Shelly also worked for the American Red Cross & the YMCA of Metro Milwaukee as corporate training specialists and had the first two of her three beautiful daughters before she became a volunteer firefighter. This led to being hired as the first female firefighter for the Wauwatosa Fire Department in 1998. She was promoted to paramedic and then lieutenant, was the HazMat team leader and a member of the special rescue team.
Furthermore, Shelly earned a Master’s of Science in Organizational Development & Leadership from Saint Joseph University in Philadelphia, PA.
For the past 20 years, Michel DeLisle has traveled and led mission teams, humanitarian aid teams, and disaster response teams through many agencies such as: Lutheran World Relief, Red Cross, Harvest International, Compassion, CMF, Missions of Hope, Pwoje Espwa, etc. In the church, she has been the Christian Ed Director, Mission Coordinator & Vacation Bible School Director over the years.
Shelly, her husband Jim and their three daughters, Madisson, Dylan and Colleen are all actively involved in service, both overseas and in the US.
Shelly, tell us a bit about your experience as firefighter in the US. How long did you serve as such and what are the most three relevant lessons for life that you learned?
I became a volunteer firefighter in 1995 after treating one of my daughters for a severe injury. We had called the fire department and they thought I had the correct training and temperament. From there, I went on to become a professional firefighter and the first female on the Wauwatosa Fire Department, a large urban/suburban department. I was trained as a paramedic as well and eventually promoted to lieutenant. I served on the special rescue teams & was the HazMat team leader. I learned many things, but here are three very relevant lessons:
1. Never sacrifice a person for a process: this means that no policy, action, procedure should come before the value of another person, their confidence, or their well-being.
2. Be accountable for all of your speech, your actions, & your promises. Being tired, hungry, angry, stressed, etc. is no excuse to treat or speech to someone else poorly.
3. Sometimes, things are out of our hands. Be humble enough to accept that.
Certainly, saving lives has its risks! Shelly, we know you began develop upper respiratory problems in 2010. Tell us about your health condition and how did it affect your involvement in firefighting?
In 2010, I began to suffer from bronchitis & respiratory issues each time I fought a fire. I would have chest tightness, a cough, & sometimes it would require medical treatment. I always recovered after a few days. In November of 2012, I fought two house fires in the same week. After the first one, on a Tuesday, I had chest tightness and a cough. I worked Thursday and Saturday of that week, all 24 hours
shifts, and by Saturday had begun to cough phlegm out of my lungs. On Sunday morning, as my shift ended, we received another call for smoke in a residence. I knew my lungs were not healthy enough to put on breathing apparatus, but my relief was not in yet and so I went. This was the last fire I ever fought. I had a short shift that night at the firehouse and my cough became worse and I could not breathe. I left the firehouse and went right to a doctor for a breathing treatment. She told me then I would never fight another fire. I refused to believe her. For about 5 weeks, I was able to move only from the bed to a chair and back. I could barely sit up to braid my daughter’s hair. It was exhausting and painful to just try to take a breath. It was hard not to despair. My youngest daughter told me later that this is where her relationship with God really deepened. She said she prayed everyday that her mom would live and when God answered her prayers and I began to get better, she realized that God was real!
After a couple of months, I could walk to the end of our driveway to get the mail and realized that my life had changed for good. I argued with every doctor and begged to go back to firefighting. Not one doctor would approve me. The fire department terminated my employment because I was not healthy enough to fight fires, something that is not legal in the US. They fought me in court and my family endured financial hardship at a time when we had two daughters in college. But every time we thought we would miss a house payment or risk losing our home, God would provide. He would send money from other firefighters to cover our costs. He sent scholarships to cover our daughters’ tuition. At first I worried, but after a few months realized that God provides. Our youngest received a music scholarship so she could continue taking violin lessons. Each time we thought we had run out of money, it would appear. As God says, does worry add even one day to our life? If He cares for the lilies and the sparrows, will He not care for us? We are at peace with our situation. We have faith that God has a plan.
The fire department initially told me I could not work anywhere else and that I should not even volunteer; something that had been a large part of my family’s life before the illness. I told them that they could control my employment, but could not control who I was. I was “service.”
Since developing lung disease and having to leave firefighting, I split time between many important organizations. I am the part time Special Events Coordinator for Interfaith Senior Programs in Waukesha; an organization that helps seniors and people of all ages with disabilities remain independent in their homes and places them as volunteer in the schools as student mentors. I also serve as the Communications & Development Director for Just One More, an inner city ministry that rescues food, repackages it and distributes it to the hungry, homeless, needy & home bound serving over 100,000 meals last year and growing. I have a non-profit, From Our Village, that matches people with service and consider these roles an extension of that organization. I also consult on disaster in Washington state & Louisiana with Response Systems International & coach a Nationals level volleyball team that incorporates service into their season. My family provides multiple community meals throughout the year and travels to Native American Reservations and other needy communities to partner with those in need. Being sick will not change this.
When and why did you decide to become involved in the service to the poor?
When I was a child, my mother did not want me. She told me as much and was often verbally and physically rough. Many nights, I would lie in the dark, small & afraid, with only God to protect me. I think this instilled a desire to care for others so they would never feel small and alone in the dark. I cannot remember a time when I would not stand up for the underdog.
I can share that even after developing lung disease and being forced to leave the fire service, I still recognized that I have a good family and friends, a roof over my head, food in my pantry, a secure community and it drove home that I can only be grateful in my life and continue to serve others that are not as fortunate.
My husband, Jim and I deliver 600-800 lbs. of food to the homeless each week. We also prepare and provide meals 6-8 times a year to children in the inner city on weekends. We conduct an annual winter coat drive and give 1000+ students a year warm coats, hats and mittens. At Christmas, we recruit friends to put together 100 gift bags for inner city kids and at Thanksgiving, we do the same to provide holiday meals to over 50 families. Jim is the Vice President of Manufacturing at Imperial Printing & has incorporated service into his companies philosophy, not only providing free & low cost printing to non-profits, but packing holiday meals, providing warehouse space to the coat/food drives, and loaning his company’s truck for deliveries.
How did God prepare you to serve the poor while you served as a firefighter?
As a firefighter, we were never invited to someone’s home when things were good. It was always the worst moment. This drove home the fact that regardless of income, race, class, etc., at the end of the
day we are all God´s creatures with basic needs for comfort, warmth, care, and security. Serving as a firefighter gave me the ability to recognize priorities (life, others, not money or possessions, etc.) and trained a calmness into me that comforts others and make them feel safe while also allowing me to function in times of great stress without panic. My medical and emergency skills are also useful in meeting the needs of those living in poverty.
Finally, what would you tell those who are considering to serve the poor but have not taken action yet?
Just do it! As my youngest daughter told a room of 400 people, you do not need any special skills to care for others, just a heart for people. There is no excuse to wait. You can listen, you can hold a hand, you can hand someone a sandwich or bottle of clean water. There is nothing standing between you and serving.