Healing through tragedy
Published: Friday, October 12, 2012 at 12:41 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, October 12, 2012 at 12:41 p.m.
When 22-year-old Wilmar Fire volunteer Scott Gratto-Bachman was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia at age 12, he thought about all the people who were helping him. He focused on his doctors, nurses, his sister who saved his life with a bone marrow transplant, and his family.
“Being that I had been helped by so many great people, and that I know what it's like to be sick, I knew I wanted to help other people myself,” Gratto-Bachman said. “You never forget people who help you when you need it most.”
Thanks to his childhood experiences, Gratto-Bachman decided that he wanted to become a firefighter paramedic. He graduated from Casa Grande High School in 2008, after being cancer-free for six years, and began working and going to Santa Rosa Junior College. He began paramedic training, worked at Petaluma's Whole Foods Market, and just last year began volunteering with Wilmar and working as an EMT with St. Joseph's Ambulance in San Rafael. But between bills, basic tuition and work, his ultimate goal of becoming a firefighter seemed difficult to achieve, especially with the additional $2,000-per-semester cost of the fire academy's tuition.
Fortunately for Gratto-Bachman, a local scholarship foundation was looking for the first recipient of their Public Service scholarship. The Kevin Whitney Educational Scholarship Team — or KWEST — was started in 2009 after Petaluman Kevin Whitney died shortly after finishing EMT training and graduating from the Oxnard Regional Fire Academy. Whitney drowned as he was swimming, drunk, just days after his fire and EMT training ended.The tragedy prompted 10 of his friends to launch KWEST in his memory.
KWEST President Jon Standring, a Petaluma High School graduate and former best friend of Whitney's, said that the team was looking for Sonoma County young people who want to give back to their community, but may not have the means to do so.
“We worked with the Carousel Fund to find Scott (Gratto-Bachman),” Standring said. “They had helped him survive his battle with cancer and when they told us about him, we knew he was perfect for the scholarship.”
With the KWEST scholarship, Gratto-Bachman will receive approximately $2,000 to pay for his first semester of fire academy tuition at Santa Rosa Junior College. He will also be continuing to work on his associates degree in Fire Technology. Gratto-Bachman said that without the help, he wouldn't be able to finish his education.
“Receiving this scholarship means a lot to me, especially since the fire program is expensive,” he said. “By accepting this help, it means that I will get to help more people in the long run, which is what it is all about for me.”
For Whitney's father, Brian Whitney, a retired Novato firefighter who lives in Petaluma, the KWEST Scholarship is a remarkable effort on behalf of the childhood friends who loved his son.
“When young people lose close friends, it hits them especially hard because everyone is in the prime of their lives and moving on to jobs and careers and families,” Brian Whitney said. “For Kevin's friends to pull together and do something to represent how they felt about Kevin is wonderful. Seeing them accomplish something that Kevin would have been proud to have his name attached to is heartwarming.”
Brian Whitney admits that KWEST is “no Carousel Fund yet,” but says that he hopes it will someday reach those levels. He added that while he was unsure of how long Standring and his friends — mostly in their late 20s — would stick with the venture in the beginning, he has been pleased that the scholarship fund has grown.
Standring said that Kevin Whitney's death had a profound impact on his life. When Whitney died, Standring was working as a bartender at a popular club in San Francisco. “After Kevin passed, I realized that I didn't want to work in a field that promoted that lifestyle,” he said. “I learned that anything can happen and that I wanted to become a better person with the time I had left.”
Part of Standring's life changes came when he started the KWEST Scholarship fund with nine of Whitney's closest friends. He said the relationships between the board members have grown and become deeper than he could have ever imagined.
“My empathy for other people has grown so much because I know Kevin would have wanted that,” he said.
KWEST will be hosting motivational speaker Patrick Maurer at Petaluma High School on Friday, Oct. 12, where they will recognize Gratto-Bachman as well. The group will also hold its major annual fundraising barbecue in McNear Park on Saturday, Oct. 13 from noon to 4 p.m. featuring food, a silent auction and music.
There is a $10 entry fee.
For information, visit http://thekwest.org/
(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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