When Sam Phillips lost her daughter in a quadruple fatal accident 18 years ago, she thought her world had ended.
Had it not been for the ambulance and fire and police personnel who pulled 16-year-old Danielle Kennedy out of the wreckage, Phillips might not have had those final 20 minutes while she was still conscious to talk to her teenager before she was placed on life support.
Kennedy was a passenger in a car that collided with a pickup truck at the intersection of Sky Hill Road and Route 551 in Mahoning Township on Oct. 9, 2006. She died a few days later, one of three teens in the car who were killed. The truck driver also died.
“That was a gift, to be able to talk to her one more time, they gave me a gift,” Phillips said reflecting on that horrific day.
Since then, Christmases were hard for her for the next 10 years. Then she found a way to ease her pain by giving back to the rescuers who were at the scene that day.
Four years ago, Phillips started the tradition of feeding the police, fire and ambulance personnel whose duties called them to work on Christmas Day.
Phillips, her husband, Dan, and her friends Holly Strickler and her son, Gavyn Strickler, 16, cooked and served a Christmas feast with all of the trimmings Wednesday for all of the first responders in Lawrence County who were working that day and couldn’t be home with their families.
There was turkey, ham, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, stuffing, tortellini soup, corn, peas, cornbread, mashed potatoes, venison, baked beans, shepherd’s pie, and multiple trays of cookies.
And while they bought a lot of the food, as they told people about the effort, many people donated other dishes.
The fare was served buffet style at the New Castle Fire Department, where all emergency workers who were on shift that day were invited to go there and eat whenever there were breaks in their work.
Assistant fire chief Mike Kobbe and his crew were ready to eat when they were summoned to a traffic accident around 2 p.m. on Long Avenue where a couple of people had minor injuries.
Kobbe said he has a special place in his heart for Phillips, not just because she engineers a fabulous Christmas meal each year, but because he was with her daughter the day of her accident. He was working then as a paramedic for Noga Ambulance, and when he got the call he was on the first ambulance at the scene.
“I was involved with getting her out of the car getting her treated and getting transport for her to a trauma center,” he said, adding that he was helping all of the accident victims at once.
Phillips never knew until this week that Kobbe was one of the emergency crew who tried to save her daughter’s life.
He said he is extremely grateful to Philllips and her family and friends for putting on such a hearty fare for the first responders who couldn’t be home with their families. This is the seventh Christmas he has had the Christmas shift. He anticipated it being busy, and it was. Before the Long Avenue collision, there were five medical calls.
“This is chest pain day, shortness of breath and passed out day,” he said of the calls typically received on Christmas Day. “This is probably the biggest cardiac day of the year.”
New Castle firefighter Marco Bulisco also expressed his gratefulness for Phillips’ efforts, explaining that emergency responders while on the job don’t often get hot meals. He was one of five men working the Christmas Day shift, along with Kobbe, Brandon Rishel, Ryan Guarnieri and Vic Cubellis.
“We get busy around the holidays,” he said.
Bulisco has a wife and a 2 1/2-year-old daughter, and “it’s very tough to be away from your family. It’s not unusual for us to spend multiple holidays away from home. This softens the blow, to have someone think about us like this, and it seems like the spread gets bigger every year. A hot meal in emergency services is a luxury.”
“This makes it seem a lot more like you’re at home,” Guarnieri said.
Phillips and her husband provided a 25-pound turkey and a ham they baked in roaster ovens. Other people she knows donated the side dishes and desserts. They made nearly 20 pounds of mashed potatoes.
“There’s so much food, that they all get to eat,” she said.
She puts the word out to co-workers and people she knows, and they contact her to coordinate what foods to donate.
Kobbe said he took the job of contacting all of the working police, fire and ambulance personnel Wednesday to make sure they knew there was an abundance of food for them.
“I do it because these guys deserve it,” Phillips said. “Someday I may need them, and right now they need the community to stand behind them. This is my way of standing behind them and showing support.”
Phillips also volunteers her help with the charitable event, Shop With a Cop, which provides Christmas gifts to underprivileged children. When the opportunity first arose for her to help, the event was held on Dec. 5 that year, the same day as her daughter’s birthday. She has helped every year since then with the event that takes place at Walmart in Union Township.
Phillips said she originated the Christmas dinner idea four years ago while talking to a good friend of hers, New Castle police officer Steve Brooks. She asked Brooks what he gets to eat whenever he works on Christmas Day, and he told her that it’s usually a cold-cut meat tray.
“I said, ‘Nope, not anymore,’” she said. She decided to feed the officers who are working on Christmas.
“Initially I fed the police department, but then I decided we’ve got to feed everybody,” she said.
She talked to the New Castle Fire Department members and they agreed to let her host the dinner at the fire station as a central hub, for all first responders countywide.
The event now has become a tradition.
“It ended up helping me,” Phillips said. “I haven’t celebrated Christmas since my daughter died, and decided I wasn’t going to sit at home, crying. I was actually doing something good, and emotionally, it has helped me a lot.”