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Volunteer firefighter's desire to help others highlighted in national contest

WESLEY CHAPEL — Sirens used to make Stephanie Sorensen anxious.

"So bad that I would have to turn my car around if I heard them and go check out my house and make sure it wasn't on fire," she said.

Her fear was a result of post-traumatic stress disorder, lingering from a horrific prom night memory in which she came upon her dad, who had been in a serious car wreck. Sorensen, now 40, ran to the scene, tearing her dress, and watched for 30 minutes as firefighters cut him out of the car and brought her unconscious father back to life.

That experience, she said, inspired her to want to help people, the way those firefighters helped her dad. That's why Sorensen became a Pasco County volunteer firefighter herself.

"I want to be able to do that someday," she said she thought after the wreck. "To have that much of an impact that I can save someone's life and change people's lives."

Now, Sorensen has a chance to give back to the organization that let her fulfill her desire to do good. She's a finalist in a nationwide online contest run by Kidde, a company that makes fire safety equipment, called Step Up and Stand Out, aimed at encouraging and recognizing volunteer firefighters. She's already earned Pasco County Fire Rescue's volunteer corps 200 smoke detectors by becoming a finalist, which the department plans to hand out to people who don't have their own at home. If she wins the contest, she will earn a trip to the Country Music Awards in Nashville, Tenn., and, more importantly, Pasco County Fire Rescue's volunteer service will receive $1,000 for training.

Sorensen's desire to work in the community started long before she became a volunteer firefighter. A St. Petersburg native, but raised in New Jersey, Sorensen graduated from the University of South Florida as a computer programmer. She worked in that field for several years and traveled all over the country and in Europe, she said, until she had her son. At 2 years old, he began showing signs of autism.

She decided to switch gears roughly eight years ago and became a teacher of autistic students in Hillsborough County schools. She specializes in teaching reading, writing and math while mixing in social skills so her students can one day join a regular classroom.

The jump from a lucrative tech job to teaching, she said, was to better advocate for autistic students in school — and for her son, who, through school choice, attends Clark Elementary School to be with his mom.

"My frustration initially with the school system was I wanted more options for kids with autism," Sorenson said last week at Fire Station 28 in Land O'Lakes. "I didn't want to know there was just this special classroom."

The firefighting idea came later, when she ran into a fire chief at a Fire Safety Week event at the Shops at Wiregrass. The chief convinced an apprehensive Sorensen to come to the station and give it a shot.

"I was nervous at first," she said. But once she met some of the crew and put the gear on, her confidence grew. "Right away, I got this buzz and had to do it."

One of the things she was eager to learn, she said, was how to extricate someone from a smashed car.

"I was scared at first because it triggered PTSD from my father's accident," Sorensen said. During training, her captain had her grab the 50-pound tool first to practice cutting a scrapped car.

Pasco County Volunteer Services chief Walter Lewellen said when he heard of the contest, he immediately thought of Sorensen.

"She's 40 years old, female, teacher of autism," Lewellen said. "And that sends a huge signal out to others. There are probably a lot of other people who … don't realize this is something they can do to change people's lives, give back to the community and inspire.

"So that's kind of why we picked her for doing this, because we knew it would be positive for the community."

In the little free time she has between teaching and firefighting, Sorensen said she's also pursuing an acting and modeling career. She's appeared in a SlimFast print advertisement, a car dealership commercial, several short films and on HSN. Her goal, though, is to make it on a television show.

It helps knowing she can overcome her fears. She no longer gets anxious when she hears sirens.

"Now instead of driving home and checking out my house to make sure it's not on fire, I'm like, 'Hmm, I wonder where that engine's going. Let's follow it.' "

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @josh_solomon15.

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