Chenay Baxter-Clark has been in America for over 17 years, and is a patriot, humanitarian, and caregiver. Originally from South Africa, her long career helping others began when she joined the local heavy rescue squad in her town as an administrative member, helping with marketing and PR.
“The camaraderie and the brotherhood and sisterhood of the department, as well and the community service aspect drew me to it.” says Chenay.
Ramsey Rescue Squad in New Jersey is an independent, volunteer-based, heavy rescue. It didn’t take long for Baxter-Clark to be drawn in, and her colleagues eventually convinced her to complete the training and become a riding member of the department. Exposure to the Ramsey Ambulance Corps during rescue calls, soon lead her to completing her training as an EMT and moving to that department.
As an EMT in Ramsey Baxter-Clark responded to hundreds of calls aiding her Ramsey neighbors in their time of need. While many calls were easy to deal with and walk away from, there were some than left a lasting imprint. However, it wasn’t until she started attended Heroes on the Water events, and heard others speak about their experiences and the long-term impact they had on them, that she realized how deeply some calls had affected her.
“I remember a call that involved one of my daughter’s classmates that affected me really deeply. After that call, I focused my time on my administrative job with the department and really stopped responding to calls. The irony, is that I had done critical incident training and knew that not talking about it was not the best way forward, but I never did.”
For 10 years, Baxter-Clark was a dedicated member of the ambulance corps, serving as the treasurer and president for her last four years there. During that time, she got divorced and became a single mom, caring for her two young daughters.
In 2015, Baxter-Clark learned about HOW when her oldest daughter, now a First Lieutenant in the Army, was attending The Citadel and a member of her local military mom’s support network posted on Facebook that HOW needed volunteers.
Baxter-Clark was feeling stressed trying to balance work, the ambulance corps, and her parenting duties, so she took a vacation day from work and attended her first event at Lake Denmark.
“I reached out to Pat O’Donnell, one of the chapter coordinators, and said I know how to kayak, I don’t know which is the right end of a fishing pole to hold, but I can take pictures – will I be of any use?”
Pat didn’t hesitate in inviting her to volunteer. Not long after she arrived it began pouring with rain. She kept her camera in a plastic bag, waiting until the rain would let up in short intervals to snap as many photos as possible before it poured again.
“No one cared about the rain. Everybody kept kayaking, talking, laughing and having this awesome experience. I learned at that very first event – the same way you plug your phone in to get a fully recharged battery – HOW became my recharge. I was exhausted, wet, and tired, but felt great!” Baxter-Clark says.
One event in and she was hooked! She started signing up to volunteer at weekend events and used the odd vacation day here and there to support HOW, NJ’s mid-week programs for the local VA hospital. She bought herself a little blue Pelican kayak for all of $300, choosing something low range because she wasn’t sure yet how dedicated she would be to it.
“The other volunteers had their really fancy kayaks and would poke fun at me for my little bitty Pelican, but I’m all of 5ft tall, it was light and easy for me to move and I ended up putting a lot of miles on that little kayak!”
Joining the Leadership Team
Chenay attended HOW events regularly, so they offered her a chapter coordinator spot; meaning that she’d become part of the leadership team. Each chapter has several members on the leadership team, sharing the responsibilities equally and working together for the health and safety of all. Baxter-Clark says she felt honored her name was included behind that title.
“The whole team is so dedicated and does such an amazing job. I have an incredible network of people who work alongside me,” Baxter-Clark says.
Raising a Generation of Heroes
She retired from the ambulance corps in late 2017. By then, she was very involved in HOW, and says that her “me time” was volunteering. Baxter-Clark says that she’s never been involved in anything quite like HOW, where she’s gotten as much out of volunteering as she has participating. Her daughter Amber has also become a dedicated volunteer, giving time on the weekend to help support events. Amber was also able to encourage members of her high school fishing club to volunteer.
“I’m able to help our vets and first responders attending our events, and also get an equal amount of help for myself,” Baxter-Clark says.
“I’m able to help our vets and first responders attending our events, and also get an equal amount of help for myself,” Baxter-Clark says. “I spent the day fishing from the dock with a Vietnam veteran who was attending one of our VA hospital events. At the end of the day, he turned to me and said, “I don’t remember much anymore, but I won’t forget today!” That just grabs your heart and makes it all worthwhile.”
She is moving to North Florida over the summer and while she is very sad to be leaving her HOW, NJ family she is looking forward to linking up with the local chapter down there.
“Expect to see me popping up at your events soon HOW, NE Florida!”
Chenay and her daughters became US citizens in 2017. As a “new American”, given an opportunity to live and raise her kids here, she’s always been passionate about supporting veteran initiatives.
“I think many people take for granted that the freedom and liberties we have are because of those members of the military we have standing behind us. It’s something I’ve always been drawn to supporting. Now, my daughter and son-in-law both serve it has become even more important to me.” Baxter-Clark says.
Both of Baxter-Clark’s daughters have volunteered at HOW events, so many of the volunteers and attendees have got to know them. Her daughter Sophie-Leigh, a 1LT in the US Army has been overseas for 3 years. She says she cherishes the support she receives from her HOW participants and volunteers who always ask her about how her daughter is doing.
“Who is my hero? My daughter chose to dedicate her career to serving her new country, so if I had to choose one, it would be my daughter,” Baxter-Clark says.