When Kelly Cobb took the reins as executive director of the Safety House Foundation, she knew it might be a short-term arrangement because much would depend on how successful the organization was in accomplishing its mission and gaining financial support in the process.
Earlier formed as an independent non-profit entity through the sponsorship of the West County EMS and Fire Protection District, the foundation uses the district’s safety house at 13790 Manchester Road to educate school-age children and their families about home and community safety. Or at least that was the plan when the facility was built with some of the proceeds from a 2012 bond issue approved by district voters.
The safety house is one part of a larger structure that includes a second wing devoted to professional training for firefighter-paramedics. A nearby burn tower used in training for live fire situations also is part of the overall complex located behind West County’s Station 2.
Until recently, neither the safety house nor the professional training facilities were being used at anything approaching their potential, and that bothered Dave Cobb.
Originally appointed to the district’s board nearly two years ago to fill an unexpired term, Dave has since been re-elected to a full term. He also serves as the board’s chairman and, yes, he also is Kelly’s husband.
“I felt we needed to do more to get our facilities going – especially the safety house – and doing what they were designed to do,” Dave said in an interview with West Newsmagazine.
One of the first steps was to establish the Safety House Foundation in 2013.
The district called on educators and others in the community to help shape the fledgling organization’s direction and goals. Because of Kelly’s background in education (she holds a master’s degree in elementary education), her part-time work in the Rockwood School District’s Parents as Teachers program, and her awareness of the district through her husband’s board involvement, she agreed to serve as a volunteer.
Other volunteers included Jimmy Gehm, a teacher at Sorrento Springs Elementary School in the Parkway School District, and Sarah Rakers, a teacher at Parkway’s Carman Trails Elementary. Suzy Morris, vice president of treasury operations and e-banking at Pulaski Bank, also joined the group.
As of last fall, Morris, Rakers and Gehm took over as the Foundation’s Board of Directors, serving as president, secretary and treasurer, respectively.
“That’s when I stepped out of the picture,” Dave said. “And I was glad to do so because I knew we had three very capable people in charge of the foundation.”
“We concluded that if we were going to do things right, we needed to have someone in charge and responsible for making sure activities were scheduled properly, that necessary arrangements were made and followed up on and basically to go out into the community to let people know about the resources the safety house had,” Gehm said. “We originally thought about trying to attract a retired educator, but we quickly realized we had the right person for the job here already.”
That person was Kelly, whom the board hired initially on a part-time basis.
“I wasn’t involved in any way in that decision-making and I’m glad I wasn’t,” Dave asserted. “It was the foundation directors’ decision to make and, for obvious reasons, there’s no way I would have wanted to be involved in that.”
Activities at the safety house picked up quickly after Kelly took the reins. In 2014, the safety house attracted 1,000 visitors. But, as of the end of May this year, the number of people coming to the facility for its various programs already was up to 1,600.
As of the first of March and with financial support on the rise, the foundation board opted to make Kelly’s position full-time as executive director. Her annual salary of $50,000 includes no pension or other benefits.
While most of the safety house educational efforts target younger people through school classroom, Scouting groups and other visits, parents also are learning from them.
“We’ve had parents tell us they’ve never used a fire extinguisher before or realized that whenever possible, bedroom doors should be closed at night to provide an extra barrier in case of fire. After the programs they’ve attended with their kids, they know those things now,” Kelly said.
Gehm said his goal as a Safety House Foundation director is to “use it to the hilt. Not just kids and parents from the district and West County but from wherever. It’s all about safety and saving lives,” he said.
Now operating independently from the West County EMS and Fire Protection District, the foundation has received gold sponsor support from Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and Mercy Health Systems.
As for the professional firefighter-paramedic training facility, additional steps also are being taken by to boost its utilization. At the West County June 1 board meeting, an agreement with the St. Louis County Fire Academy was approved to make West County’s premises available for the academy’s programs with daily fees charged for usage.