By Pete Wicklund
Fire survivor Jeff Jordan could have taken the adversity life gave him and led a solitary life of anger and self pity. Instead Jeff’s mission these days is not to dwell on his challenges, but to work to help and inspire others to reach their potential.
Many in the fire service in Wisconsin are familiar with Jeff. He has been a fixture at various fire department conferences and events and he has been featured with his adoptive mom, Tina, in public service promotions for the National Fire Sprinkler Association Inc.
Last October, Jeff, 24, was the keynote speaker at the Wisconsin State Fire Inspectors Association Fire Prevention Professionals Conference in the Dells.
Jeff’s life took a calamitous turn when he was just 6 weeks old when his 4-year-old brother got a hold of a lighter and ignited some drapes near Jeff’s crib. His parents, then 21 and 20, had left their five children (ages 4, 3, 2 and 1) home alone. The older kids got out of the trailer; Jeff did not.
Jeff was ultimately rescued and flighted to UW-Hospital. He had suffered third-degree burns over 33 percent of his body, with most of the injuries on his face, chest and hands. While he was at the hospital, doctors also found signs of an earlier skull fracture that was healing.
He ended up staying in the hospital for 4½ months and during that time his biological parents visited just twice. A nurse at the hospital decided to take Jeff home as a foster child.
Jeff’s prospects for the future looked dubious at best, with the likely scenario of him being sent to a pediatric nursing home in Illinois. The worst outcome, if that would have happened, is he could have become a Bears fan, Jeff joked at the WSFIA Conference.
Instead, fortunes prevailed. At 6 months old, Jeff was taken in by a family with three children of their own, ages 4, 3 and 9 months. Jeff ended up growing up with the youngest; they were in the same grade during their elementary school years.
Jeff faced numerous challenges as he recuperated and grew up. Among them, multiple reconstructive surgeries, which often times meant missing school.
And then there was his appearance. As Jeff points out, it’s not like he could hide his scars. He endured teasing and ostracization. When he would be out in public, Jeff would see kids point and hear them ask questions about his appearance.
“Kids don’t filter their conversation too well – they just say what’s on their minds,” Jeff said. “I still get that today.”
The circumstances took their toll. Jeff began to act out in school, often getting into frays with his classmate brother. He was suspended from school twice for being disruptive and he felt like he was always behind in his work. Jeff says that by the time he was in middle school, he pretty much had checked out of academics – he said he hated being at school.
“The way I felt inside was not positive,” Jeff said.
But maturity slowly began to take hold. And when he got to high school, he discovered a passion – computers. He took as many computer classes as he could to a point where he was able to take independent study for two years.
“Which was great; I loved it. It was such a way for me to relax and just do what I enjoy,” Jeff said.
Also helping Jeff fend off anger and depression was the Wisconsin Summer Camp for Burn Injured Children, now run by the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin Charitable Foundation Inc. He started attending the camp, held at Camp Timber-lee near Troy Center in Walworth County, when he was 7.
“It’s an amazing therapeutic place that when you’re younger it’s fun, but you really don’t notice how much it helps you,” Jeff said.
It was through his long association with the burn camp that Jeff developed his public speaking ventures. For 10 years, he has spoken to various groups in an effort to raise funds for the Burn Camp, which does not charge youngsters who attend.
“It gave me a perspective I never had before, because I could see the value in some of us really helping others and that was a major step forward in my life,” Jeff said. “I realized what I did could make a difference.”
Jeff’s speaking engagements have taken him all over the country. Every year he attends the conference of the Wise Foundation, an Oklahoma burn survivors support organization; he was a speaker there for three years. He has made a presentation at the Arkansas Burn Camp and was on a panel of young adult mentors at the World Burn Conference two years ago. And in 2015 he spoke to the Florida chapter of the National Sprinkler Association.
While Jeff can’t avoid his story during his presentations, he works hard to encourage others to overcome their own challenges to reach their potential.
“A lot of things people face as challenges are not necessarily things they did to themselves,” Jeff told attendees at the WSFIA conference last fall. “I’m here because I believe in the ability of people to change their lives for the better if they put in the work and effort. It’s not always easy, but I believe we can change the bad circumstances in our lives.”
After high school, Jeff attended college for a while and now is working in telecommunications customer support and sales.
And he even was able to achieve something he thought would never happen. He met his girlfriend a little over two years ago.
“It took forever to get that kind of relationship in my life and for a long time I thought it was impossible and would never happen,” Jeff said. “So the things you might think are impossible really are possible.”
“We can all do amazing things if we can follow our passions and mine is to try to inspire others to make a difference in people’s lives,” Jeff said.
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