Robert Avery

A Columbus firefighter’s dedication to his community takes the form of small acts of kindness for the people in need he comes across every day.

Next March, Robert Avery will reach the quarter-century milestone in his firefighting career. He runs into burning buildings while everyone else is running out, said Brandy Avery, his wife. Yet that’s not why she nominated him for recognition. Instead, she’s impressed by his selfless, charitable gestures for people on the streets, neighborhood kids and anyone else he encounters.

As the father of a 10-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter, Rob has a soft spot for children. Earlier in his career, he began volunteering with Firefighters 4 Kids, and then, in 2009, he started Jingle Mix & Mingle, a toy drive that benefits families who make more money than certain charitable eligibility requirements allow but still struggle to make ends meet. His toy drive also specializes in providing gifts for older children and teenagers, who are often overlooked by charities. Jingle Mix & Mingle works with Firefighters 4 Kids, the United Way, the Columbus Urban League, Maryhaven and social workers, and has provided toys for more than 175 children each of the last three years, Brandy says.

Rob is especially passionate about helping kids in the Olde Towne East neighborhood where he’s lived since 2003, serving as the positive role model that some lack. He gives them chores to earn money, trying to show them early on that cash won’t just fall from the trees. Some of them are deprived of resources and will have to work even harder than everyone else, he said, so he wants to teach them discipline and responsibility. Sometimes he just talks to them about what’s going on in their lives and tries to get them to see beyond where they are right now. At the Feddersen Community Center near Northern Lights, he encourages kids to better themselves, and he’s coached basketball there as well. He also talks to young adults about pursuing careers in firefighting.

“He’s just got a good heart and [is] always willing to try to help someone out if need be,” said Tommy Brown, the manager of Fedderson. Brown grew up with Rob, and the two attended the same elementary school near Linden. To Rob, there’s nothing remarkable about his altruism because it’s just how they were raised. Both men’s families shared food and hospitality with anyone who stopped by or needed it. Rob’s stepfather—who cared for him when his biological father wasn’t around—was like the neighborhood dad. It was the proverbial village.

“And that’s what I don’t think we have right now,” Rob said. “The people in the village don’t take care of the village no more.”

In his unassuming way, he has set out to affect change one person at a time. Brown said he’s watched Rob give away his meal to a homeless person who looked hungry on several occasions as they dined around town. If someone approaches and asks for money, Rob finds work they can do, whether it’s picking up trash on the street or pulling weeds from around the Avery’s home, and rewards them for their efforts. He’s given money to help sustain a lot of people whose problems are beyond their control. It’s economic empowerment, his wife said.

“He never sees a person who he’s down on or he’s hard on,” Brandy said. “He always gives them some type of light to kind of get them through their day, no matter if they’re homeless, no matter if they’re a young kid.”

Rob’s hope is that the people he helps pay it forward to others. It’s not heroism; it’s a simple model for improving the world. “I don’t look at it like I’m doing anything really special, I just think that’s what we all should do,” he said. “I think if everybody did that, then hey, it might be a better place to live.”