Two dark-eyed, dark-haired boys smile out at Colorado Springs firefighter Shelly Madrid every time she opens her locker at fire station No. 7.
"They are my favorite people," she wrote last year on her Facebook page about her sons, 10-year-old Jayson and 7-year-old Jaxon.
Alongside the school pictures is a handwritten letter from Jayson, written when he was in fourth grade. In it, he asks about training to become a firefighter and tells her he's proud of her and loves her.
Madrid isn't like the other parents in her sons' fifth- and first-grade classrooms at Chipeta Elementary School. She's not a stay-at-home mom or an 8-to-5 desk jockey. The divorced 32-year-old is a five-year veteran of the Colorado Springs Fire Department who relief drives the big rig and is studying to pass her certification in June for a promotion to driver.
"It's the most uncomfortable thing for me. It's out of my comfort zone," said Madrid, clad in her blues as she sits in one of the station's generously sized black chairs at the kitchen table, sprinkled and jellied doughnuts busting out of a box nearby and a continuous news loop playing on the big-screen TV. "But it's so empowering. It's the coolest thing ever. My kids think it's so awesome and scary, too, being responsible for the safety of everyone."
She's not exaggerating. The truck does come up frequently when the boys talk about their mom's job.
"We can go on top of the trucks," said Jaxon, about the best part of his mom's job.
"That she helps people," said Jayson in response to the same question, "and we can go there and see all the stuff."
Madrid is one of 18 female firefighters in the city. She was already a mom when she started in 2013 at age 27, something Fire Capt. Stacy Billapondo says was beneficial. The captain also was already a mom when she joined the department 22 years ago at age 32. Her kids are now 35 and 33. Her oldest son, Bryson, survived the 2012 Aurora theater shooting.
"It helped they were that old because I didn't have to worry about babies or nursing," said Billapondo, who works at station No. 14 at Dublin and North Academy boulevards.
"Some women nursed on the job, and some women were still nursing when they came back. And when that call comes in...," she said, leaving the thought unfinished.
No doubt nursing isn't the only thing new mama firefighters might have to sacrifice for the job they love.
Each week, Madrid works three 24-hour shifts every other day, so she's bound to miss some holidays, birthdays, school functions and football games. When she's at work, her boys typically stay with her mother. Her father and two sisters help where they can as well.
"You have to balance work and home," Madrid said. "Even guys on the job are family-oriented and super supportive and are encouraging about being a good parent. It's really about other people that surround you. It makes it better and easier. We have so much support."
It's impossible to make it to everything, but she does relish the long days of being with her kids when she's off work. She remembers working for the T. Rowe Price global investment management firm, dropping them off at 6:30 a.m. and picking them up at 6:30 p.m. Now she gets to spend many consecutive hours with them.
"I miss some things. I try to make it to as many things as I can, but I get to be there for a lot also," Madrid said. "And they get to experience a lot of things most kids don't get to see."
Her initial year as a firefighter was especially challenging, as new hires go through a year of probation and rotate through stations.
"That first year I was so tired and I was studying," she said. "My older son didn't like me working nights. One night he told me he didn't want me to be a firefighter anymore. It took some adjusting."
After that year, though, the boys grew accustomed to their mom's new job and proudly told friends about it. Last month, Jayson's school teacher even had his classmates make cards thanking her for her service.
"It's challenging. It can be overwhelming," Madrid said. "It's a day-by-day process. How are we going to conquer today?"
And perhaps more than a parent in a risk-free job, Madrid has taught her boys to not take each other for granted.
"My oldest is at the age where he's too cool. If I want a hug and a kiss, he'll lean away," she said. "I tell him, 'You have to let me hug and kiss you, because you never know.'"
Billapondo at one point had to leave her family in Arvada and live at her Springs station during the week, only traveling home on weekends.
"I missed a lot of stuff," she said while cleaning gear in station No. 14's bay after an early morning call. "I missed birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, but you make it up. You plan for before or after. It is what it is, and when you have a birthday or holiday off, it's special."
A life's work
Firefighting was Billapondo's calling, she said, something she knew as a kid whose family attended spaghetti dinners at the volunteer department near their home. But in the '60s, female firefighters were almost nonexistent, she said. It took her seven years to make her dream a reality.
"My mom and dad said, 'If you want it, you can get it.' You have to want to take on other people's stuff."Moms are supposed to always be there, kissing the boo-boos," she said. "I couldn't be there to do things I was supposed to do. It was learning a new role in family life. You have to be engaged in your family when you're with them. Women are better at disengaging (from work). We still have the mom role at home. We still have that latent desire to be nurturers."
Ultimately, watching her choose the road less traveled inspired her sons.
"Anything is achievable," Billapondo said. "My oldest is a chef, and my youngest owns a business in Miami. You can always get what you want, but you have to put in the work. Nothing is handed to you."