By Josette Keelor
EDINBURG -- Walking the sidewalks wearing matching florescent yellow T-shirts, volunteers with the Edinburg Volunteer Fire Company have earned their share of hoots and honks of encouragement.
Along the 3-mile trek around town four or five nights a week, they check fire hydrants and plan for the evening or the week, said fire company director Gerald Hawkins. They're also trying to beat out other area volunteer fire and rescue squads for cash prizes and the honor of being the company to lose the most weight this summer.
Walking together as a group, Hawkins said, "it's a morale thing for us."
Hawkins won the individual weight-loss challenge two years ago when Shenandoah County began its first countywide "Lose a Ton of Weight" challenge for career and volunteer fire and rescue squads.
"Our department's won it both years too," said Hawkins, a volunteer with the company for more than 35 years and leader of this year's weight-loss effort.
That first year, he lost about 30 pounds in three months, and this year plans to maintain his current weight.
The weight-loss challenge started July 1 and runs through September, Hawkins said. Ten volunteers from the Edinburg company plan to compete against participants from Woodstock, Star Tannery, Fort Valley and Mount Jackson. About 30 volunteers across the county have signed up this year.
The challenge promotes a healthy lifestyle among fire and rescue volunteers in an effort to help prevent heart attacks and other health conditions, Hawkins said.
On average, he said, 100 firefighters die each year, 60 percent from cardiac events.
"That's what we're trying to do is stay fit, stay active," Hawkins said. "We have a lot of fun doing it, but the main reason is to stay healthy."
"Heart attack is a major killer," he said. "It's not fighting the fires."
Participating for the first time this year, volunteer firefighter James Lanman called the health effort a good idea, "especially just getting all of the guys together."
"It helps build a better camaraderie," he said. "This community definitely supports us."
Three years ago, fire and rescue personnel lost a total of 500 pounds, according to Chief Gary Yew of the Shenandoah County Fire and Rescue Department.
Falling about three quarters short of their initial weight-loss goal of a ton, he said, "We're still happy with that."
This year Yew said only volunteer fire and rescue department are participating.
"Groups meet just about every evening with organized walks," he said.
Participation backed off last year, but it's up again this year, Hawkins said.
Cash prizes for the winning department and the three top overall winners come from a $1,000 fund the county has set aside for the contest.
Hawkins explained the county supports the weight-loss effort as a means of helping protect the community.
"As long as we can maintain a volunteer force, it's helping taxpayers and so forth, and if we can stay strong."
"One reason that our department stays strong, we try to do activities together, whether it's family oriented or just getting together," he said. "That's what makes this department strong is leadership."
Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or firstname.lastname@example.org