Lesson from the lion-hearted: Always keep your hope high

Illustration by Forest Byrd

We don’t like writing stories about fires. We admire the courage and dedication of the firefighters. They are volunteers. They go out in the dark of night, leaving their own families behind, to help people in need, people they don’t even know. Strangers. They risk their own safety to do it.

But, beyond profiling that heroism, covering fires is usually depressing work. When a home burns, families lose more than their investment. They lose their sense of place and security. They loose their possessions and the memories those possessions and those charred rooms held. Gone are the wedding pictures and the locks from a child’s first haircut.

We’ve even covered fires where people have lost their identities. It has taken months of cutting through bureaucratic red tape, since their drivers’ licenses and other papers that show the world who they are, have disappeared.

Still, a house afire is news. It has to be covered. So we make the phone calls, we visit the burned house, the smell of smoke still hanging about it. We look at the rubble, and feel bereft.

This week was different. We found courage and hope rising from the ashes of a charred home. It came in the form of a loving family, the Skippers, and their daughter, Ernestine, who runs with all her heart.

The hope came from more than just Ernestine and her family, though. It came from a coach who really understood what she was going through, and taught us a thing or two about giving and receiving. It came from a school where teachers and administrators care about Ernestine. And it came from a larger community that is seeking more support for the family.

Ernestine Skipper is one of the fastest sprinters at Guilderland High. She’s had a passion for the sport since she was a child. Her mother this week lamented the loss of a wall full of medals and trophies that Ernestine had won.

Ernestine, though, decided to start anew. She was slated to compete in the prestigious Dartmouth Relays two days after her house burned. Her track gear was lost to the fire. She first thought she should stay with her family but her father told her, “Ernie, even though our house burned down, you shouldn’t pass this up.”

Despite serious physical ailments, Ernest Skipper never misses a track meet. He suffered smoke inhalation the night of the fire. Urging his daughter to go, to leave him behind, was a sacrifice.

Ernestine took his advice. “I decided to go, even though I didn’t have anything,” she said.

When Ernestine saw her coach, David Kosier, he hugged her and told her, “I’m proof you can get through this.” He and his wife, Stephanie Kosier, a science teacher at Guilderland High School, had lost their own home to fire two years ago.

We covered that fire, too. Stephanie Kosier told us how a neighbor had knocked at their door to say their house was aflame. More neighbors soon followed and a group went back into the house to rescue family pictures and albums before the fire overtook the house.

Before the fire, the Kosiers didn’t know their neighbors very well, but, Mrs. Koseir said, they learned something: “We have neighbors who were willing to run into a burning building,” she said.

By the time Rick Peterson got to the scene, from the Pine Grove fire department, the first floor of the Kosiers’ home had been consumed, making it impossible for firefighters to get inside and put out the flames.

“It was extremely hard to fight,” said Peterson , a 27-year veteran of the department. He offered the Kosiers a home.

“You have to look at the positive things,” Mrs. Kosier said at the time. “You definitely find out about the generosity of people.”

“The community really rallied for us,” said Coach Kosier this week. “We rebuilt on the same foundation. We left with two kids and moved back in with three. Looking back, we’re far enough away to say we’re stronger because of it. We learned how good people are.”

Ernestine, too, learned how good people can be. The owner of a sporting goods store gave her clothes and shoes to run in. The track booster club and PTA instantly came up with funds for her. Her teachers shopped for overnight necessities — from pajamas to Q-tips.

When Ernestine seemed “a little shy” about accepting help, her coach understood; he had been there. “You’re taught since you’re a little kid not to ask for things for yourself,” he said. “She wasn’t asking for a handout. I told her that giving makes people feel better.”

He is right. We all know the Biblical edict that it is more blessed to give than receive. But it is also easier to give than receive. Ernestine was able to accept help with grace.

“I had everything I needed,” said Ernestine. “It was awesome.”

She made use of her gifts at the Dartmouth Relays. She heard her father’s voice, telling her to focus. Ernestine ran five grueling races in one day, making it to the finals in the 55-meter race. She sprinted to third place. She won her medal.

Wise beyond her 17 years, Ernestine offered some advice. “If somebody has a fire, it’s a very tragic thing. You have to keep positive. Good things happen. I never expected people from my school and church and community to help us like they have. Always keep your hope high.”

We’ve learned from you, Ernestine, and from your coach. We’ve learned that, when all seems lost, we may find something valuable — the generosity of people. People we know and love, like our families and friends and teachers. And people who, like the nameless firefighters or donors to a cause, give to strangers.

People rallied around you not out of pity but out of pride. You kept your hope high and that gave all of us something to root for.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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