As Herkimer Central School District sixth grader Brett Saunders recently walked in a procession of American Red Cross Real Heroes Celebration award winners, his thoughts were elsewhere.
Brett, 11, was receiving a Youth Good Samaritan Award for his efforts to provide smoke alarms to students and their families. He and the other winners were following behind a bagpiper as they made their way to the front of a large crowd at the Marriott in downtown Syracuse.
His mind, however, was still thinking of the friend he lost in a fire that set him on this path.
“This is for you,” Brett said, of what he was thinking toward his friend. “And his brothers too.”
The American Red Cross Real Heroes Celebration took place on Wednesday, Dec. 7. The Central and Northern New York Chapter of the American Red Cross states that it puts on the annual Real Heroes Celebration “to pay tribute to individuals and community organizations who have demonstrated acts of heroism, courage, kindness and unselfish character.”
Brett was recognized for helping with the donation of almost 1,500 smoke alarms to local elementary students and the Herkimer Fire Department’s launching of the Brett Saunders Fire Safety Program.
After a 2019 house fire in the community claimed the life of Brett’s friend and two of the friend’s brothers, Brett wanted to find a way to make a difference. For his birthday party, he asked his friends to bring donations to the Herkimer Fire Department instead of presents.
“I figured I would take a tragedy and turn it into something good,” he said.
The Herkimer Fire Department matched Brett’s donation and reached out to local businesses such as Hummel’s Office Plus in Herkimer and PAR in New Hartford for further donations, along with donations from the Guardian smoke detector company. This led to the Herkimer Fire Department giving out 610 smoke alarms to Herkimer Elementary School students in 2019.
The Herkimer Fire Department also put on an assembly at Herkimer Elementary School and named it the Brett Saunders Fire Safety Program. Brett was surprised and happy to have the program named after him.
“It’s really cool because I know it will go on for a long time,” he said.
The Brett Saunders Fire Safety Program has continued at the Herkimer Elementary School each year, and smoke alarms are still given out every year as well.
In 2020, the Herkimer Fire Department used leftover smoke alarms and a generous donation from Brett’s aunt, Amy Spytko, of Mohawk, to give out 700 more smoke alarms. These were given out to a combination of Herkimer Elementary School kindergarteners and the whole Benton Hall Academy in Little Falls.
Due to COVID-19, donation collections were more challenging after that for a couple of years, but the efforts continued anyway, and more will be done going forward, said Brett and his mother, Amanda Saunders, a licensed teaching assistant at Herkimer Central School District.
In 2021, 80 more smoke alarms were distributed to Herkimer Elementary School kindergarteners. In 2022, 55 smoke alarms were given to students at the St. Francis de Sales Early Childhood Learning Center in Herkimer.
“I’m going to try to do it every year,” Brett said, of distributing smoke alarms. “Hopefully it keeps going.”
The current plan is to provide smoke alarms to every incoming kindergarten class at Herkimer Elementary School resuming next year and each year after, Amanda Saunders said.
Wegmans was the sponsor for the Youth Good Samaritan Award Brett won and expressed interest in donating, and the Red Cross expressed interest in working with Brett as part of the Red Cross Sound the Alarm program, Amanda Saunders said.
Being recognized with the award from the Red Cross felt good, Brett said.
“Really good,” he said. “Rewarding and special.”
Amanda Saunders also appreciated seeing her son receive the award and all that he has done.
“I’m a proud mother,” Amanda Saunders said. “You teach your children to do good things in the world, and he’s certainly changing the world. A simple act of kindness has gone a long way. It really has. It has blown us all away.”
When Brett first chose to collect donations for his birthday, he thought maybe the Herkimer Fire Department would just use the money to purchase some supplies for families such as blankets and pillows.
“I didn’t know it was going to become this big,” he said. “It turned out to be really big.”
If you would like to donate to Brett and the fire department’s fire safety efforts, contact Amanda Saunders at email@example.com or Herkimer Fire Chief Michael Moody at 315-866-2242.
Herkimer Central School District sixth grader Brett Saunders, 11, poses with firefighters after receiving the Youth Good Samaritan Award at the American Red Cross Real Heroes Celebration on Wednesday, Dec. 7, at the Marriott in downtown Syracuse. From left: former Herkimer firefighter Tejay Chilluffo who worked closely with Brett, Herkimer Fire Chief Michael Moody, Brett and Herkimer firefighter Dan Mabbett.
Herkimer Central School District sixth grader Brett Saunders, 11, holds his Youth Good Samaritan Award and medal that he received at the American Red Cross Real Heroes Celebration on Wednesday, Dec. 7, at the Marriott in downtown Syracuse.