Sean Sokolowski, who grew up in Cranberry, admits he was something of a mischievous youngster.
“It wasn’t anything illegal,” he said. “I was just having fun.”
Still, it was the kind of fun that left Sokolowski with a reputation in his neighborhood as a near-clone of Dennis the Menace, said Denise Hathazy-Davis, whose son is Sokolowski's friend.
That changed on Sokolowski's 16th birthday when he joined the Cranberry Township Volunteer Fire Company as a junior firefighter in 2008.
It also altered the course of his life.
Hathazy-Davis said Sokolowksi has evolved into a responsible young man who is devoted to the fire company. Besides volunteering with the fire department, he's an EMT with Cranberry Emergency Medical Services. Now 19, he's a student at Butler County Community College. He also works as an equipment operator at Zokaites Contracting in Wexford.
“He is very, very careful about what he does, what he says and what he participates in now because he want to have a good reputation in the community," Hathazy-Davis said.
Sokolowski’s dedication to firefighting so impressed Hathazy-Davis that she nominated him as a "Greatest Person" for Cranberry Patch. "Greatest Person" stories feature extraordinary members of the community, and Hathazy-Davis said Sokolowski fits the bill.
“The love of being a community servant is what runs though this young man’s veins,” she said. “I am proud to say that Sean Sokolowski is one of our finest community volunteers in Cranberry Township.”
His commitment to the fire company also is obvious to those in the department.
In January, the fire company recognized Sokolowski for attending the most fire calls in 2011. Now a full-fledged firefighter, Sokolowski responded to 376 of the 586 calls the department handled last year.
He also has devoted himself to studying for his state training certifications in the hopes of one day becoming a professional firefighter.
“I do this because I love it,” he said.
Chief Brian Kovac said Sokolowski is known as a key member of the department and quick learner.
“He loves to train,” he said. “That’s the most important thing here.”
He also is a good friend.
Sokolowski last year helped the Cranberry and the Zelienople fire departments organize a memorial to honor Elijah Lunsford, Trevor Barkley and Sam Bucci. The teens, who were Zelienople firefighters and students at Seneca Valley High School, drowned in January 2010 after the sport utility vehicle in which they were riding went out of control and rolled upside down into a icy pond near the Zelienople-Harmony Sportsmen’s club.
Hundreds of people attended that memorial, called “A Celebration of Life.” Sokolowski and Lunsford were particularly close friends, and Lunsford was a major influence in Lunsford’s decision to become a firefighter.
Sokolowski also was part of a more low-key ceremony last month to remember the second anniversary of the teens’ deaths. Sokolowski said he and other members of the Zelienople and Cranberry fire departments gathered at the pond where the teens died. Firefighters turned on the headlights of their cars while the sirens from a Zelienople fire truck parked nearby wailed into the evening.
Sokolowski said the gathering went from being a small affair to an event attended by many firefighters from throughout the area.
“Probably 50 people showed up,” he said. “It started as like, six or seven people.”
Sokolowski is close with many members of the fire company who, over the years, have become a family to him. Along with Sean Hayden and Shawn Thomas, Sokolowski is part of the “Sean/Shawn Squad” at the fire department. The three firefighters use lockers placed next to each other at the station.
As for what he likes best about being firefighter, Sokolowski said he loves the thrill of going out on a call. He also takes satisfaction in helping others.
That is why Hathazy-Davis said she takes comfort in knowing Sokolowski is on duty.
“I go to sleep every night knowing my family, my property and Cranberry neighbors are in good hands with a first responder like Sean,” she said.