The West Sayville Fire Department is the heart and soul of the community. Their membership has never been stronger. In this regard and so many others, they are bucking the trend. Why? Meet the West Sayville Juniors. For 124 years, the juniors have been giving children the childhood all kids deserve, all the while protecting the future of their department and their community. Indeed, this group has created a membership pipeline to one of Long Island’s most decorated fire departments.
Bill Leigh-Manuell, a retired professional firefighter who joined the juniors in 1961 as a 9-year-old, took the time to sit with the Suffolk County News, as did his smart, spirited 12-year-old granddaughter Brooklyn Diwby, and the Community Ambulance’s chief Jamie Atkinson. Atkinson joined the juniors at 14; became an emergency medical technician at 17; responded to 9/11’s Ground Zero at 19; a policeman at 20 and detective for the MTA; a Community Ambulance Officer at 22; and is now the ambulance’s youngest chief at 29.
SCN: What are some of the things you like the most about the West Sayville Fire Department juniors ?
Brooklyn: We give back go our community by doing charity events such as the food drive, where we give back to families who aren’t as fortunate as some people. I like the people in the juniors. They’re kind and they’re amazing. I like the drills and the training that we do. It prepares us for life and what we’re going to do in case of an emergency when we become actual firefighters.
SCN: How did your experiences as a junior impact your decisions about your career and community service as an adult?
Jamie: I think back first to the youth squad, when I was a junior in high school (14 or 15); it gave me an area where I had a lot of friends with a mutual commitment. Community service isn’t something you’re born with. You learn it. My parents both instilled in me community service. When I was at the firehouse, I met a bunch of kids and we all had the same mindset. We all had common goals and wanted to do good for our community. After that, I joined the juniors at the Community Ambulance Company as well. From there, I became an EMT at 17, which was kind of unheard of. I was at Suffolk Community College at 19 when I responded as an EMT to 9/11. I was actually working as a dispatcher for the police department at the same time. I got enrolled into becoming a cop at 20. And it all started from the Junior Fire Department and the Ambulance Company.
SCN: How have the juniors impacted you, your family and the entire West Sayville community?
Bill: I kind of grew up around the fire service. My father and most of my uncles were in the fire department. From an early age, I wanted to be a fireman. The way to get indoctrinated in it was to go into the Junior Fire Department. So when I reached my 8th birthday in 1961, the eligible age, I went in the juveniles. I loved it. A lot of my friends went in with me. We had good teamwork, good camaraderie. My father was the secretary of the fire department for 20-something years and secretary treasurer for the Water Commissioners for another 20-something years. My uncle was treasurer for the West Sayville Fire Department. Between all my cousins and such, I think we had 15 Leigh-Manuells in the fire department. A lot of them spread around the country, but we still have many in the fire department. Right now I have four grandkids in the juveniles, two boys and two girls. They have a good program now. They keep the kids very active. It’s not just the firematics of it. They do a lot of social things like take them to the city for things, the Fire Department Museum, the Radio City Rockettes. They all love it! This past March, I had 50 years in the West Sayville Fire Department.
SCN: How are the juniors helping you to become a leader?
Brooklyn: The juniors helped me become a leader because they teach us how to handle situations in real life. You can’t be a leader if you’re the one panicking and frantic. It teaches us how to be calm and how to keep everyone else calm. The juniors also teach us respect, honesty, character development and responsibility, which you need to have to be a good leader.
SCN: How do you think the juniors and eventually volunteer firefighters strengthen our community?
Jamie: Looking back with all my friends that were with me, a lot of them couldn’t afford to be here and they actually moved away. So the fire department and the ambulance make you have a stake in your community. If you think about the fire and the EMS, it’s almost like a family. People joined for several difference reasons. They might’ve come because they’re missing something. Or maybe something happened that impacted your life. My mom passed out and the ambulance came. I wanted to get involved because I saw one of my neighbors come over and help. I was 17. I was in the youth squad already, but I didn’t experience an actual ambulance call. When I was chief in the ambulance, I was able to have the youth squad go ride on the ambulances. To get that experience, I think it completely changes things. You can learn and train in the classroom. But you physically come and see your neighbor help you; that’s what I want to do.
SCN: How do you think juniors have preserved parts of community?
Bill: They still get involved in community events. For a while, everything kind of went away because we were over-organized. I guess the family structure kind of disappeared a little bit in town. I like to see when you have a local bottle drive a few years ago, or the grave restoration, you run something for local families. It’s [about] giving back to the community. I’m sure the recipients are satisfied that they got the help they needed. But as far as us, we love doing it. We do three scholarships: one for Connetquot, one for Sayville, and we do a separate one in memory of one of our members that we lost on 9/11. That’s the money we raise independently that we give back to the local community. And some of the kids we’ve given scholarships to are now members.