Each week, we offer a Q&A with a local personality. Today, 38-year-old Champaign resident Femi Fletcher, the executive assistant at the Urbana Fire Department, chats with The News-Gazette’s Paul Wood. Fletcher does a lot of community work and has literature on the mind — she’s writing a book.
Where did you come from and how did you get here?
I’m a townie. I was born at Carle Hospital. My parents drove me home to our little two-story house in my dad’s green Volvo, and I’ve been here ever since.
Any growing-up stories?
My fourth grade teacher at Bottenfield Elementary was Linda Kimmel. I’ve always loved reading and writing, and my favorite assignments were essays. We had to write an essay that personified some inanimate object, and I wrote this essay about how my sneakers probably felt that they had a horrible life with me sticking my feet in them every day, throwing them in the corner when I took them off, etc. Twenty years later, I ended up living across the street from Mrs. Kimmel, and she still had that essay. She brought it over to me one day with a plate of cookies or something. I was speechless.
What interests you most right now?
Lately I’ve been hyper-focused on how I can bridge some gaps between my professional work and my community involvement. I have enjoyed a weird but fulfilling career in public safety that puts me in contact with a large community of first responders, and I’m also an advocate for those affected by domestic violence. I’ve been working on ways to formalize some kind of curriculum about patterns of domestic violence for our area first responders.
Tell us what you love about the Urbana Fire Department. What’s something great the department has done recently?
Oh, man. I love my job so much. I work with heroes every day. I’m literally the only person in the department who doesn’t have a fire service background, so I’m always fascinated by the work they do — the constant, rigorous training, the amazing balance they exhibit between the exhilaration of hard (and dangerous) work and the serious business of saving lives. But aside from the technical aspects of their jobs, they are just amazing people who genuinely love using their skills and abilities to help people. Last year, Urbana was designated an ISO Class 1 community by the Insurance Services Office because of our level of excellence in fire service protection. We are incredibly proud of that, because that designation translates to real insurance cost savings for the citizens of Urbana.
This is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Tell us about your work on this.
I feel privileged to serve on the board of directors for Courage Connection, a non-profit organization that offers a range of support services to survivors of domestic abuse. Courage Connection is a gem in this community because it helps give a voice to an issue that’s too often silent. There is a spectrum of abuse that often precedes or accompanies violence: verbal abuse, emotional abuse and financial abuse are just a few examples. Staff members at Courage Connection are really passionate about helping people stay safe from violence, as well as helping people understand what happy, healthy relationships look like. So I’m proud to help support them in their work.
Any other community work?
I work a lot, but I enjoy helping Urbana Firefighters Local 1147 with fundraisers for their charity fund, which they use to support charities like MDA and March of Dimes. I’ll be helping at their annual Trunk or Treat Car Show later this month. Before I came to Courage Connection, I did a lot of community work that focused on youth; I was on the board of directors at Tap In Leadership Academy, a unique agency that provided excellent after school and summer school programming. I was also a CU One-to-One mentor. I enjoyed giving back to programs that helped my own children flourish.
Tell us about your kids.
My son played football his whole life and then, during his senior year at Central, he decided he wanted to go to school for fashion merchandising. So off he went to Kent State in Ohio for their fashion program. He soon learned that he liked the merchandising much more than the fashion, so now he’s majoring in business economics. My daughter is a senior at Central. She is equal parts cashmere and steel wool. She loves helping others: She wants to go into nursing, but’s she’s also passionate about social justice. She’s up for appointment as the youth seat on the city of Champaign’s Human Relations Commission. They both keep me on my toes. I’m amazed at who they’re becoming.
Go Maroons! What did you love most about going to school here?
Being a Maroon is a family legacy. I have two older brothers who went to Urbana and were star athletes in their day, but my dad and my older sister went to Central, so there was this little rivalry in our house growing up. Central High School helped shape who I am today. It’s where I really fell in love with literature, thanks to some phenomenal English teachers. I was on the speech team, and I was a Madrigal. I haven’t stopped talking or singing since. I joke with my daughter, because you can find plaques in Seely Hall with my sister’s name, my name and my son’s name for various awards or achievements. I keep telling her she only has a few more months to get her name on the wall.
You've mentioned 'a weird public safety career.'
Those phenomenal English teachers at Central made me want to become an English teacher. But my son came along pretty early in my life, and in my freshman year at the University of Illinois, I found myself needing to leave school and go to work full time. At 19, I applied for a job as a Telecommunicator at METCAD, and lo and behold, I became a 911 dispatcher. That job opened up this whole world of public safety, and I fell in love. I got to help people in ways I never knew I could. I stayed there about four years, and then got a job at the Urbana Public Works Department, where I spent seven years learning about things like severe weather response and keeping the city’s infrastructure safe. When I moved to the fire department, it felt like coming home. Fire dispatch was my favorite during my METCAD days, and I’m like a kid in a candy store every day I walk through the apparatus bay to get to my office. I missed my brothers and sisters in blue, so I also work part-time as a police dispatcher at Parkland College. All that said, my love for literature never went away. I’d still like to teach at some point in my life.
You're in the 'very, very beginning stages' of writing a book. Fiction or non-fiction? Can you give us a hint on what is will be about?
It’s about a girl who used her life’s heartaches to try and make the world a little better.
What book are you reading now? What is your favorite book ever?
Right now I’m reading “Feel Free,” a collection of essays by novelist Zadie Smith. My favorite book ever is “Song of Solomon” by Toni Morrison. Everyone should read at least one Toni Morrison novel in their life.
What would you order for your last meal?
I recently stopped eating meat, but I’d have a lobster tail and a ribeye at my last meal.
What personality trait do you most hate in other people? Most hate in yourself?
I despise selfishness, especially when it’s malicious. I believe strongly that we’re all here to help support one another. That said, a friend once told me that selflessness is my biggest flaw. I don’t necessarily agree that it’s a flaw, but I do tend to want to take on the whole world when I really need a nap.
What’s your best piece of advice?
Forgive quickly and completely.
How do you handle a stressful situation?
I analyze all the facts available to me, and I tackle it head-on. My career has revolved around mitigating highly stressful situations. The key is to stay calm and logical and to use your resources wisely. Know your limits and when to call for backup.