A One In 8.4 Million Chance Meeting Between A Young Woman With A Dream And A Pioneering Female Firefighter

CareerSelf Improvement 13 Comments

To toast the three year anniversary of our founders meeting WYSK Brenda Berkman, who became the subject of the very first video profile we premiered on our site, the ladies headed over to the W Hotel for an evening of celebratory cocktails. They never could have predicted what happened next.

Here’s what our Jen Jones shared…

“Through sheer determination and the tireless fight she waged against the City of New York in 1979, Brenda Berkman not only changed history, she changed the face of what a firefighter looks like in NYC, as well as in firehouses across the country. In my book, she’s a rock star and deserves to have a red carpet rolled out wherever she goes.

That’s why whenever I’m with her I enjoy telling strangers that, ‘I’m with a big time celebrity’ (it’s also fun to make Brenda blush). So when our unsuspecting cocktail waitress came to our table, I did just that. She smiled politely at my ‘there’s a celebrity in our midst’ comment, and proceeded to take our drink order.

I turned to our guest of honor and said, ‘Brenda Berkman… what are you having?’ At that, our cocktail waitress – Kristina – turned to Brenda, took a long look and then excitedly exclaimed, ‘WAIT… I know you. I wrote a paper about you in college. You’re the first woman firefighter!’

Before the fairy dust had even settled on that magic moment, the fireworks of fate exploded around us again when the 22 year old from Queens, NY then told us that she has wanted to be a firefighter since she was a senior in high school, and is currently on the waiting list for the FDNY Fire Academy.

Collectively, Cynthia, Brenda and I let out audible noises of disbelief mixed with elation that translated to some version of ‘HOLY SH*T!!!! WHAT ARE THE CHANCES?!?!?’

We all managed to compose ourselves long enough to get Kristina’s story. She’s the daughter of a New York City Police officer, who is the biggest supporter of her wanting to pursue a career in fire service. Go dad!

Here’s how passionate she is about fulfilling her dream. Kristina has been preparing herself for the demands of firefighting for the last five years. She has been doing CrossFit since she’s 17-years-old to build her speed, agility and strength, and she got her EMT certification at age 19. She then went on to become a volunteer firefighter in Dix Hills, Long Island from age 19 – 21 to experience, first-hand, exactly what it takes to be a firefighter.

Kristina not only loves everything that goes into firefighting, she believes, as Brenda still does after waging her battle over 35 years ago, that women can bring a new and different perspective to the largely male-dominated field.

In terms of her knowledge of Brenda, she told us that while she was in art school, she was asked to write a paper on the professional person who most inspires you… for Kristina it was Brenda Berkman. That’s why she knew exactly who Brenda was. I didn’t even get to deliver my famed PR shpeal because Kristina already knew it.

To add yet another level of craziness to this story… Kristina was not supposed to come into work that day. But she did. Not only were we her first table of the night, Brenda’s drink was the very first order she took on her shift!

As the night rolled on and the inspiration-fest continued, Kristina shared with us, ‘I just told one of my co-workers that the lady I’m waiting on tonight is the only reason why girls of my generation can even choose to be firefighters!’ At that point, we all started to well up as Kristina’s gratitude and reverence for what Brenda had done for girls and women everywhere was palpable. She then brought her manager over to meet her idol. He graciously rolled out that red carpet I spoke about earlier for Brenda, a living legend and the only true “celebrity” in the posh lounge.

With no date in sight as to when she might get called off the waiting list for the FDNY Fire Academy, Kristina told us that she was taking this serendipitous meeting as a sign to never give up on her dream of becoming a firefighter. Brenda, ever the generous soul, offered to mentor and help Kristina in any way she could.

So let me quickly recap… three women walk into a bar, one of which is a pioneering firefighter. We randomly sit at the table of our choosing overlooking the World Trade Center Plaza, where Brenda served as a 9/11 first responder. The waitress in our section turns out to be an aspiring firefighter, who wrote a paper on the legendary firefighter she is now waiting on. The mentee and mentor are now forever friends.”

What started out as a typical “Girls’ Night Out,” turned into a lesson in serendipity, perseverance, and the power of women supporting women. What a magical, WYSKy night.


WYSKy Selfie: Jen Jones, Brenda Berkman, Cynthia Hornig

  • Kim

    Love this! Happy 3rd WYSK!

  • AJ

    WOW!!! Talk about serendipity!! A magical WYSKY night it was!! Thank you, Brenda, and good luck, Kristina.

  • Jesse Gardner

    I thought I was the only one who knew how to embarrass Brenda…nice to read this story, and proud to have painted Captain Berkman’s portrait in 1993. This is a great story, and is an example of how important Berkman’s leadership was, and continues to be, even in “retirement.” Leaders never retire…

    • Jesse… so well put, “Leaders never retire…” We would LOVE to see your portrait of Brenda! Is that possible?

      • Jesse Gardner

        Sure! Brenda visited our family a couple of weeks ago. Here is a professional photo of the 1993 portrait, and the other two were taken in my gallery a couple of weeks ago. Brenda brought along her print series of the new tower, and she did a great presentation of them to a small group, including Captain Linda Long of the PFD. Captain Long is another reluctant hero, who started as a volunteer medic, made it all the way to the rank of Captain as a medic in the PFD, then started all over again training to be a firefighter. I have been faithfully promoting the cause of women firefighters since 1991. I hope you will check out my posts on Unsung Heroes Gallery on Facebook. And thanks for your interest!

        • Lucy

          WOW, this is amazing!

          • Jesse Gardner

            Thanks, Lucy–I hope you have the chance to visit the gallery in Philadelphia some time…here are a couple more of the women firefighters I painted back in the 1990’s…they were from the first group of women firefighters who graduated due to Berkman’s suit.

          • Americana

            Wonderful portraits! Firefighting is such an unknown profession. Even though they’re flashing to fires all around us every day, until we’ve been close to a major fire ourselves, I think people underestimate what the job entails and how much courage and smarts it takes.

        • Jesse, your work is really powerful. Thank you for sharing it and for letting us know about Captain Linda Long… she’s got quite an inspiring story too.

          As our daily mission is to celebrate unsung heroes, and share the untold stories of everyday women doing the extraordinary, we look forward to checking out your Unsung Heroes Gallery on FB. Thank you for creating such important work and for connecting with us.

          In regard to unsung heroes, we think you will appreciate the very first piece that launched out site on September 7, 2011. http://www.womenyoushouldknow.net/thousands-of-women-you-should-know/

          • Jesse Gardner

            Thank you! I just read that first post and left a comment thanking you and the authors who brought the stories of the Women at Ground Zero to light. There is much work to do, and I appreciate your focus on these issues. The only way to make changes to the status quo is to work together.

        • Americana

          Your paintings are fascinating and beautifully done! I’m glad you’re championing the role of women firefighters. It’s an exceptional woman who develops the strength of the stronger men but it can be done. I take it from your shirt that you are a firefighter yourself?

  • Danielle Belin

    Love this story!