Maryville teen escapes harm to pursue dream of being a firefighter
Flat on her back and strapped to a gurney after another of her episodes, Shelby Williams opened her eyes and gazed into her future.
"I want to be a firefighter," says Shelby, a 19-year-old special-education student at Cornerstone Academy in Streamwood and resident of Maryville's Casa Salama home in Bartlett for girls with intellectual disabilities and mental illnesses. "I've gotten into some trouble and been in the back of some ambulances, so I've come face-to-face with firefighters, and they've always treated me well. If I asked questions they'd tell me what the equipment was and stuff. They were real nice."
Shelby smiles, crinkles her nose, rolls her eyes and sheepishly offers an explanation for her frequent brushes with firefighters.
"One time I had a head injury and the rest of the times I was just crazy," admits Shelby, who says she was a troubled girl and "a cutter" who deliberately harmed herself until she got the help she needed during these last three years with the staffs at Cornerstone and Casa Salama.
Last week, Shelby received an acceptance letter from Elgin Community College, where she will take classes toward a two-year associate degree and her goal of becoming a firefighter.
"That is so cool. We are so proud of her," gushes Rocco A. Cimmarusti, program director at Casa Salama.
"It really is exciting," says Cornerstone Principal George Krieger, who works in an environment where "good news" often means nothing more than the ability to reduce the amount of bad news. "I have no doubt in my mind that she can be a firefighter. Shelby is really the best-case scenario. She has the ability and she has the drive."
Shelby is quick to give thanks to all the people who have helped her, including Christine Turner, the vocational special-education coordinator for Cornerstone and its sister schools, who has been working extensively with Shelby.
"I wouldn't be pushing so hard for this if I didn't think she could do it," says Turner, who arranged a recent visit to a Streamwood fire station and helped Shelby apply for college.
Once thought to have an IQ in the 40s, largely because of her inability to manage her major depressive disorder, Shelby now tests just slightly below the average IQ of 90-110, Turner says. Shelby is a manager who oversees other students working in Cornerstone's food shop, and serves as a mentor to others.
"She's really a role model for the other students," says Michele Lome, a school therapist at Cornerstone. "Shelby is self-aware. She's open and honest about what's going on with her."
Streamwood firefighter and paramedic Chris Tierney says he and his co-worker Joe Markowski showed the beaming Shelby around the fire station and didn't notice anything that hinted of her past troubles or that she is a resident in a Maryville home for girls with intellectual and mental disabilities.
"There's a lot of kids over there who have been dealt a horrible set of cards," Tierney says. "It's gratifying for us to help someone in her situation."
As someone who worked five years to become a firefighter, Tierney says he sees no reason why Shelby can't get there too.
"More power to her," Tierney says.
Having been on the receiving end of so much life-changing care, Shelby says she wants to do the same for others.
"I don't see me being a therapist, and this is a way to help people," she says of being a firefighter. "I'd want to be the one going into the burning building to help people. I'd do it, but I don't want to be the one getting cats out of trees."
An athletic kid who says she loves working with her hands, hiking, playing basketball and other sports, Shelby has her red hair cut short, which makes her multiple pierced earrings more visible.
As a young girl failing in school and unable to handle her mental illness, Shelby lived with relatives in North Dakota and Colorado before moving to McHenry with her mother and stepfather. Her stepbrother and stepsister are college graduates and she has a younger brother and sister. Her local school district pays to educate Shelby at Cornerstone and Shelby's mental illness qualifies her for an Individual Care Grant from the Illinois Department of Human Services that pays to have her live at Casa Salama.
While Shelby says she is happy with her life now, she says she is working toward "transitioning" into a smaller group home and eventually becoming an independent, taxpaying member of society.
"From when you first came here, Shelby, you are a totally different person," Krieger tells her. Turner says the turnaround has been remarkable.
"I used to punch that brick wall," Shelby says of a mural wall that graces the school's entranceway. "I used to punch anything."
At Casa Salama, where her case worker is Donna Martorano, Shelby used to be one of the girls who caused the most concern with her self-directed violence.
"I was thinking I was going to get that call in the middle of the night," Cimmarusti says. Instead, the staffs at Casa Salama and Cornerstone "kept her safe" long enough for her to build relationships with "lots of folks" and realize "that she is safe and these people really do like her," Cimmarusti says. "She was open enough to let it get through and use it. That's her gift she gave us."
Now Shelby says she not only understands those dark urges to cut herself or punch walls, she has tools that help her cope with them.
"I just used that so I wouldn't feel the emotional pain," Shelby explains. "The physical pain distracted me from the emotional pain I felt."
While therapy and medication have helped Shelby live with her mental illness, she added another aid in the form of a tattoo after she turned 18. Her left arm sports the words "To Love Oneself" framing a symbol for strength.
"I used to cut myself a lot. I wanted to stop and this is just a reminder," Shelby says, running her right hand over the tattoo.
"She's learned coping skills most 19-year-olds just don't have," Krieger says.
In addition to starting her college career, Shelby is on the waiting list with other young adults for the Streamwood Fire Department's "Fire Explorer Program," which Shelby says is "like a firefighter boot camp."
As long as Shelby remains a student, she can receive state mental health services until she's 22. Shelby does well with her schoolwork at Cornerstone and handles the responsibilities and the money from her part-time managerial job at the school. But "those first classes she takes in college are going to be hard," says Turner, who adds that she and others are dedicated to helping Shelby succeed.
"It's going to be hard," Shelby agrees. "But life has never been easy. It will be worth it in the end."