Posted Suzanna McCloskey on 3/7/2015 |Featured Columns & Series
This year, Girls on the Run will serve its one-millionth girl! We’re honoring this milestone by celebrating what makes each of us one in a million and by showcasing some one-in-a-million women who have made exceptional contributions to empowering girls and women.
Nationally, women make up only 3.5 percent of firefighters. In Austin, Texas, where Xochitl Hernandez works for the Austin Fire Department, that percentage has nearly doubled in the past six years under the leadership of Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr. Xochitl, who has been a firefighter for 13 years, is one of the women paving the way for other women firefighters. Special thanks to Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls for pointing us to Xochitl as a remarkable woman to showcase as part of our One in a Million celebration!
Here’s what Xochitl has to share about being one in a million.
Q: Girls on the Run envisions a world where every girl knows and activates her limitless potential and is free to boldly pursue her dreams! How did you start to realize your own limitless potential and pursue the path to where you are today?
Xochitl: I believe I started to really understand the meaning of limitless potential when I began playing soccer in grade school. I was literally a girl on the run. I loved to run and jump. The feeling of my by body in motion was so exhilarating to me. I started to realize my true potential when I enrolled to participate on a youth soccer team. I enjoyed running and playing so much that I began to excel in the sport. I soon found myself on an all star team, headed for a national tournament. I had a dream to pursue, and I hadn’t even realized it. Everything I learned from the different coaches on the many teams I ended up playing on helped me to become very team oriented. I knew that my career would involve a team of some sort. Today, I came into work and joined seven other people to make up a team that help keep the City of Austin safe.
Q: Of the traits and achievements that help make you one-in-a-million, what stands out most to you?
Xochitl: The trait that helps me the most is having a positive, anything is possible attitude. Not only does it make things fun, but it helps others. Becoming an Austin Firefighter is an incredible achievement for me. I knew that this was the job for me, I did everything I needed to prepare, sacrificing time and putting in the extra effort, and it paid off. I have been a firefighter for 13 years.
Q: Girls on the Run believes that big things are possible when you keep moving forward. One of the ways our girls experience that is when they cross the finish line at the 5k that celebrates their completion of the program. Can you share an example from your own life?
Xochitl: I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro years ago, never having really gone hiking. My sister had invited me to go with her and her husband. I said, "I’d love to go, but I’ve never even been to Big Bend (a state park in Texas that has pretty good sized hills, a little rough terrain in some areas and, most importantly, cold nights)." My sister said, “Oh, you’ll be fine.” She was so confident about my ability – why wasn’t I? Shortly after our conversation, I found myself at the bottom of Mt. Kilimanjaro, a mountain close to 20,000 feet in the middle of Africa. I had read many books on this mountain and the region and was so thrilled with the possibility of walking above the clouds, but I still had doubt. I had traveled half way around the world and was intimidated by the possibility of not making it to the top. We were set to go, and I was packed for five days, the time it would take to get up and down the mountain. I told myself, I would take it step by step. I would rely on my endurance that I had developed playing soccer. I told myself, “I got this!"
Day one was a breeze. Day two was fun, but I felt as if we had been walking for days. On day three, I walked above the clouds. It was pretty tiring, but I could feel we were high. It was an inspiration to keep going. On day four, many people started to go back down, my sister included. They were either cold and exhausted or sick with altitude sickness. Day four was the hardest. My heart beat felt as if it were in my ears; my breaths were shallow and short, and I constantly felt out of breath. My feet were so cold and my face felt frozen due to the freezing wind in the high altitude. I had to make it, I had to see the remnants of the volcano at the top, but I was becoming miserable. I was getting a headache, due to my shallow breathing and my clothes were wet from being sweaty. I knew I wasn’t sick, but I was mentally and physically tired. I remember thinking that it could be worse – it could be raining. I knew that if I just put one foot in front of the other, I would make it. I remember taking a deep breath, the deepest breath I could, and saying "I got this!” Just as I had appeared at the bottom of the mountain days before, I had appeared at the top of this great mountain next to a huge ice glacier. Wow! I had done it! Now, to get down.
Q: Which one of the core values of Girls on the Run resonates most with you and why?
Xochitl: The core value “Express joy, optimism and gratitude through our words, thoughts, and actions” resonates with me most while I’m at the fire station. It is a joy to come to work. I try to have a positive attitude, and I’m very grateful to be in a position where I can serve our community.
I also truly believe in the core value “Embrace our differences and find strength in our connectedness." We are not alone in this world, and we all basically want the same thing. If we were all the same in personality, the world would be a very boring place. I believe we have the potential to be anything we want to be and accomplish our goals, but we should also remember we have the potential to be something that we don’t want to be--such as when we make a poor decision and have to suffer the consequences. It’s the differences that allow us to learn about ourselves. Through connections with others and collectively working toward a goal, we can move mountains.
Q: One of the many things our curriculum teaches girls is how to recognize and work through challenges in productive ways. What is a challenge you have faced (or still face)? How did/do you respond, and what have you learned from it?
Xochitl: A challenge that comes to mind for me would be my height. I’m a very proud 5 foot 2 inches tall. Many times in my life a few more inches would have helped me in physical tasks, but then I wouldn’t be who I am today. Being one of the smallest people in the fire department has motivated me to become very cardiovascularly fit. I have adopted a healthy diet and work out regime that helps me stay in shape and strong. Throughout my career, I’ve learned that there is definitely a place for me... in fact many places for me! Not only do I crawl into the places where no one else can fit and work in very cramped areas, but I also now teach others how to do the same. Recognizing my challenge and learning how to use it to my advantage has helped put me in a position to help others.
Q: What insight or advice would you offer a young girl today? What would you say now to your 8-year-old self?
Xochitl: There is someone out in the world that is very much like you, but there is also no one in the world that is exactly like you.
Who do you think is One in a Million? Take the One in a Million Challenge today and help build a chain of affirmation! Post a photo of someone you think is One in a Million, make a donaton to Girls on the Run in their honor and ask them to accept the challenge to do the same.