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Being there in the worst of times

Jessi Willenbring, Ellsworth Area Ambulance Service (EAAS) director, said the ambulance service is very thankful for the many donations they receive from the community. Order of the Easter Star recently gave EAAS $100. Pictured (left to right) Willenbring, Mary Bristol from Order of the Eastern Star and EAAS Treasurer Connie Burgess. Submitted photo

Helping community members during the worst of times is what Ellsworth Area Ambulance Service (EAAS) members do. The new EAAS director plans to ensure members have the resources they need to best serve the community.

Jessi Willenbring officially took over as EAAS director April 24, but had been serving as interim director since Dan Morth stepped down Feb. 4. Willenbring became a paramedic with EAAS in April 2016. She previously served as an EMT and a paramedic on the River Falls Ambulance Service. She also worked at Healtheast in St. Paul.

Willenbring said the service can support three full-time paramedics and two full-time EMTs. Currently, EAAS has two full-time paramedics, two full-time EMTs and 27 volunteers on staff. Willenbring is looking to hire one more full-time paramedic.

"I moved out of the full-time paramedic position into director," Willenbring said. "Until I fill the full-time paramedic I have to fulfill paramedic and director [responsibilities]."

When Willenbring was pregnant with her second child, she and her family moved back to Ellsworth where she could be closer to her parents. Her family played a big role in her decision to take the full-time paramedic position in Ellsworth in 2016.

"I worked for 10 years in St. Paul," Willenbring said. "I came back here to work full-time, [because] I was missing out on things. I wasn't able to see the kids grow up as much as I wanted to. So I took the full-time position here. It worked well."

Being vested in the Ellsworth community made Willenbring's decision to apply for the director position easier.

"Moving more into an administrative role was in my five-year plan," Willenbring said. "But the position came open now and if I had my choice of community to stay in this would be it. It's a good opportunity."

Willenbring moved to Ellsworth when she was about 4 years old and she and her family have been strongly vested in the community ever since.

Willenbring's mom spent at least 30 years working in the Ellsworth Community School District, while her dad spent 32 years as the UW-Extension agent in Ellsworth. Willenbring has not only served the community as a paramedic but will serve her fellow citizens as the EAAS director.

Willenbring said her job is to help the staff make sure they can best serve the community.

"This isn't a position about what I want, but the needs of staff and community," Willenbring said.

One of her responsibilities as director is to look at the municipally-funded EAAS budget and make the best use of the money for resources members need to best serve the community.

"Make sure we are good stewards of the money we do have," Willenbring said. "Be good stewards of the resources we do have."

She said she listens to others in the service to see what resources would best help them do their jobs. Some things like new vehicles are necessary for the ambulance service to serve the public. But in addition to vehicles there could be specific equipment the staff wants on the vehicles to improve performance.

"We have things like new vehicle purchases," Willenbring said. "What do you need to do the job well without undue struggles."

These types of questions are what she looks at while finding ways to fund staff needs and wants, which in turn help them to effectively do their jobs.

Recently EAAS received $250 from the St. Croix Master Gardeners Association to redo the north face of the ambulance building between the ambulance building and fire hall station. Trees in this area were removed because the roots were getting under the building. Willenberg said runoff became an issue, so the grant money and other donations will fund a retaining wall and hardy plants to combat runoff and make the area look nicer.

EAAS recently received $100 from the Order of the Eastern Star, which may also be used for the retaining wall project. In addition to using donations, Willenberg said EAAS relies on funds generated from the annual pig roast. The money raised at this year's event will be used to update training equipment. The current equipment, Willenberg said, is "pretty old and well loved."

A stressful and ongoing issue is finding enough paramedics and volunteers to staff EAAS. Willenbring said with modern time constraints, it can be hard to find people who have the time to volunteer and she understands that.

"The biggest challenge facing any rural EMS is staffing," Willenberg said. "In general, the community has an awesome volunteer spirit. But people have to spend all of their time surviving. Everyone's busy, bills to pay. People don't have time they used to have. I realize we ask a lot of people."

Willenberg said they continue to look for volunteers, plus one full-time and one half-time paramedic. Anyone interested can call 715-273-4879 for more information. For those interested in becoming an EMT, EAAS offers scholarships to help pay for EMT education.

While nobody wants to or thinks they will need to rely on the services of EAAS, Willenberg said unfortunately at some point many people may need to.

"Everybody will have a day where they have needs they never anticipated," Willenbring said. "Emergencies, traumas, accidents will affect people at some time in their life. We need to have resources to be there for them. I want people to know when they are having their worst day we are going to be there for them. Hopefully we make their worst day a little less bad."