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Seeing People, Not Problems: An Interview with Colin Mennega | Homeschool Helpers

October 10–14, 2016   |   Vol. 128, Week 9

As a firefighter, Colin Mennega has had many unique experiences. But for this homeschool dad, the best part of his job isn’t running into burning buildings or even rescuing cats. Hear Colin’s story on this week’s Homeschool Heartbeat.

“Serving the public doesn’t even have to be a job—it can also be an attitude or a way of life.”—Colin Mennega

(This interview is part of our Homeschool Helpers series, which highlights homeschool grads and parents across the nation serving their communities as public servants. To read more stories, click here.)

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As a firefighter, Colin Mennega has had many unique experiences. But for this homeschool dad, the best part of his job isn’t running into burning buildings or even rescuing cats. Hear Colin’s story on today’s Homeschool Heartbeat.

Mike Smith: I’m joined today by Colin Mennega. He’s a firefighter and a homeschool dad. Colin, welcome to the program!

Colin Mennega: Thanks Mike, my pleasure.

Taking school on the road [0:26]

Mike: Colin, would you tell us a little bit about what you do?

Colin: Sure. I’ve been a firefighter with the City of Grand Rapids Fire Department for just over 22 years. I’m currently a Fire Lieutenant, which means that I’m in charge of a fire company both in the fire station and when we’re on emergency calls. So basically, my job is to respond in the fire truck to emergencies. And for the most part, the rest of my job is preparing for emergencies: doing training, cleaning up the tools and equipment, physical fitness—that kind of thing.

Last year our department responded to over 22,000 emergency calls—which aren’t just fires; we also do medicals, car accidents, river rescues, hazmats, and a variety of other things, too.

 Wow. How many trucks do you have in your company?

Colin: In my fire station we have an engine, a platform truck, we’ve got a hazmat unit, we have a medical unit, and we have the battalion chief.

Mike: How does your job allow you to be involved in homeschooling your kids?

Colin: Yeah, that’s actually one of the greatest parts about my job: I work 24-hour shifts, which means that I only work about 10 days a month and it works out to be about 56 hours a week on average. But the nice part is that I have the other 20 days of the month as days off, which means that I get to spend way more time with my kids than most dads do.

So when our kids were little, my wife did pretty much all the formal homeschooling, but I would do things kind of in a support role. I would do the grocery shopping or clean the house or I would take a toddler or baby with me to do an errand, and that kind of gave her the time that she needed to teach the older kids. And then as the kids got older, I’ve been able to do more things like math and sciences, advanced things that are more my forte. I tend to be an experiments-and-experience kind of guy, so we did a lot of fun things in the back yard with the kids.

One of the best things that we did as a homeschool family: we bought a motor home and we took school on the road. We would go in the early summer before school was out or in the fall after school was back in and the weather is still good but there are no crowds, and we would go places then, which was really taking advantage of homeschool[ing]. But I never would have been able to do that if I didn’t have a job and the schedule that I have.

Growing godly character [2:26]

Mike: Colin, in your experience, what’s the greatest benefit of homeschooling?

Colin: How much time have you got? I could go on for a long time about this.

First of all, I would say that the greatest reason that we decided to homeschool in the first place is because we wanted to be our kids’ main source of influence. We felt that putting our kids in school would mean that somebody else would be the one that was imparting values and instructing our kids in how to interpret their world, and that kind of thing.

So if I had to choose the one greatest benefit, I’d have to say that we’re able to make the most of the short time that we have with our kids—especially in light of the fact that God has instructed us as parents to be the ones to impress God’s ways on our kids.

But, you know, truthfully, we had no idea when we started of all the awesome benefits. We get more time together as a family; we’re raising people that we don’t just love but we really like each other, you know. We’ve also been able to create a really unique family culture. Our kids know what it means to be a Mennega and they’re proud of that. They really feel like they belong. And our kids also have shared experiences and are not in different grades and separated, so our kids are all best friends with each other even though there’s a large gap in their ages. I would also say growing godly character in them, that’s a big benefit. Another benefit of that, being around your kids all the time: growing godly character in us as parents is a huge benefit. Also, we are able to customize our kids’ educations specifically to them and also do it at a pace that works for our kids. I mean the list just goes on and on.

A compassionate heart [3:48]

Mike: Colin, what’s the most challenging part of your job as a firefighter?

Colin: You know, the job itself can be very physically demanding, and I find that working the 24-hour schedule means that I’m almost always sleep-deprived.

But I would say that one of the toughest things for me personally is seeing the way that some people live. I’ve responded to my shares of sheriff calls that had domestic violence or stabbings, shootings, drug overdoses, chronic alcoholism, homelessness. And it’s really hard to see the wasted lives, the despair, the brokenness, especially when there are kids in the middle of all that.

It’s also hard to respond to all that day after day and not become hardened in my own heart. So for me, maintaining your compassionate heart for the lost and the broken—that’s a perpetual challenge, I think.

Mike: What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

Colin: Well, for me, that’s an easy answer: It’s knowing that I made a difference. Nearly every time that alarm goes off, someone is having a bad day: their house is on fire, their dad is having a heart attack, they’ve been in a car accident and we get calls; we’re there to help, and we’re the good guys, so we are there to bring order to somebody’s chaos. And at the end of the shift, it’s usually pretty easy to look back and see, you know, I was able to make a difference in someone’s day. Some days, I was able to make a difference in someone’s life. It’s a pretty great feeling.

Seeing people, not problems [5:01]

Mike: Colin, are there any experiences you’ve had as a firefighter that really stick out to you?

Colin: Yeah. Being in the fire service has really given me the opportunity for some pretty unique experiences—and really not just rescuing people from burning buildings. Things like doing CPR on somebody and then finding out two weeks later, “Hey, they were returned to their job and their families.” That’s a great feeling. Things like going my whole career without ever delivering a baby, except for one week when it happened twice! And riding in an army tank during an active shooter incident. Your experiences are really unique.

One very memorable day was when we had responded to an apartment building and we found that a man had blown off his entire forearm when the illegal bomb he had been making exploded in his hands. And I’ve also rescued a number of dogs and cats and even rescued a family of ducklings that went down into the sewer on two separate occasions. And while I have never gotten a cat out of a tree, I did rescue a 1,500-dollar macaw once from a tree on New Year’s Day.

Mike: You know, this sounds like an interesting job. But how has being a firefighter changed the way you see the world or the people in it?

Colin: I think everybody knows that there are problems in our communities like homelessness, drug addiction, poverty, crime, but it’s another thing altogether to experience it up close and personal. I think that has really changed me. It’s made me realize that there are faces and names on those problems, and there are kids growing up in the middle of those problems.

And that can be really hard to take sometimes. It’s really tempting to numb up to it and develop a hardened heart. But one thing that I try to do all the time is to remember that this drug addict or homeless person was once a little baby in someone’s arms. That helps me to refine my compassion for them, and it reminds me that they need compassion and that maybe I’m the only person that they’re going to get compassion from.

Mike: Well you know Colin, I think that’s a message you’re giving today that we all need to hear. So thank you for sharing that.

Read needs in your backyard [6:56]

Mike: Colin, why is it important for homeschoolers to be involved in public service?

Colin: You know, I think homeschoolers have great potential as public servants. In my experience, homeschoolers are often very passionate, independent thinkers, and they already see themselves as having potential to impact their world. You know, frankly, that’s exactly the kind of person that I want working next to me in the firehouse and on the fire ground. And you know, for people like you and me, that’s the kind of person we want coming to our houses in our time of need. There’s a lot of potential to make a difference every shift that you work.

Mike: So how about your own kids? Have you been able to get them involved in public service and if so, what does that look like?

Colin: My wife and I feel that it’s our role to prepare kids to engage the world that they live in. So, while I don’t necessarily overwhelm them with the nitty-gritty of all the things that I see or experience, I do want them to know that there are very real and impending needs right in our own backyard. So I tend to share with them what I encounter, so they can evaluate for themselves—you know, what kind of needs there are, what kind of problems, even what kind of temptations are there are in this world.

To answer your question, I get a chance to teach my kids about public service pretty much every time I tell them a story from work and how I responded to it. But I also get a chance every time I serve at church or help a neighbor or help one of them, even. In our minds, serving the public doesn’t even have to be a job—it can also be an attitude or a way of life.

Mike: Well, Colin thank you for joining us on the show this week. It’s been a real pleasure, and I’m sure our listeners have enjoyed hearing your story—I know I have! And until next time, I’m Mike Smith.

Colin MennegaPhoto of Colin

Colin Mennega is a Lieutenant with the Grand Rapids Fire Department in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he has been serving the public since 1994. In addition to fighting fires, he is also a Medical First Responder (MFR) and Hazardous Materials Technician.

Colin and his wife Kathy have homeschooled their 4 children since 1997, and they enjoy traveling in their motorhome as a family. They hope someday to travel to all 48 contiguous states.

Colin has experience in a variety of trades, and in his spare time he enjoys building and fixing things. His job as firefighter has granted him a great number of unique life experiences, both at work and in his personal life. He is very thankful to God for the opportunity to serve the public as a firefighter, as well as the opportunities this career path has afforded him and his family.

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