NM firefighter dedicates himself to helping others less fortunate
Firefighter Rollin Tylerr Jones says his work as a first responder and nurse has driven him to step up to help victims of poverty, war, disease and disasters
The Santa Fe New Mexican
SANTA FE, N.M. — Rollin Tylerr Jones, his eyes lit up, was like a kid at Christmas in a small room full of bicycles needing repairs.
Soon, the Santa Fe firefighter will be playing Santa Claus, distributing overhauled bikes to kids who don’t have one and working with businesses and nonprofits to collect toys and money for low-income families throughout Northern New Mexico.
“It’s Christmas,” he said, explaining his reason for wanting to do something for children. “When you meet kids who don’t get a Christmas, it’s immediately clear: They don’t want to talk about it. You’re on the outside, looking at the rest of the world celebrate something wonderful, and you aren’t part of it.”
It’s not just Jones’ work collecting toys and fixing old bikes that earned him a spot as one of the Santa Fe New Mexican’s 10 Who Made a Difference for 2019.
He also has organized fundraisers to combat breast cancer and support the Muscular Dystrophy Association. He has had his head shaved to raise money for childhood cancer research through the St. Baldrick’s Foundation — personally raising almost $50,000 in the last eight years, according to his nomination letter for the volunteer award.
And he has taken his lifesaving skills across the nation and around the world to provide aid in dire situations.
After Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Jones showed up to provide medical care. He did the same for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, as well as for children, civilians and military personnel caught up in conflicts in Iraq.
“He is a very caring person about those who are less fortunate,” Santa Fe Fire Department Chief Paul Babcock said. “He has his own family he takes care of, but he also travels across the world, building a larger family to provide for people he doesn’t even know.
“As a firefighter, he creates that sense of why we show up to work every day, trying to make a difference in the community.”
Jones was born in California and raised in Los Alamos, where his father worked as an electrical engineer for Los Alamos National Laboratory and his mother as a postal worker. He shares a first name with his dad. His middle name is a scramble of letters from his mom’s name, Terryl.
His parents were hard workers who were empathetic to the needs of their community, he said. Every Christmas, his family members would become secret Santas, giving gifts and writing poems of support for families in need on each of the 12 days of Christmas.
He harbored dreams, Jones said, like so many other kids, of becoming a firefighter.
After a five-month stint as a teller in a Los Alamos bank (“I’m very high-energy, so that was torture,” he said), Jones took a friend’s advice and trained to become a firefighter. He also earned an associate degree in nursing, which serves him well in his job and his volunteer work.
His empathy for others caught in tight jams or financially challenging situations was heightened after he hit a patch of bad luck and bad choices, including a drunken-driving charge that cost him his job as a Los Alamos firefighter and led to a period of homelessness and living in his vehicle.
“Fired. No job skills. No money,” he said. “I had to pull myself up from my bootstraps.”
The woman who would become his wife, Becca Jones — they’ve been together 13 years and married 10, which is as long as Rollin has worked as a city firefighter — played a role in turning his life around, he said. “She’s a truly compassionate, good person.”
Becca Jones worked at a doctor’s office to support him while he went to school to earn his nursing degree. She’s provided a steady heart and hand for him, he said, and together they adopted a girl, Sophia, who, at 8 years old, is “hilarious and smarter and braver than I am.”
Sophia also has been a “game-changer” for her father, he said. “When you have a child, you can more easily put yourself in the shoes of others who have children who need something.”
As a firefighter, nurse and overseas medic in war-torn places, Jones has no choice, he said, but to see the devastation and pain that world conflicts and illnesses inflict upon children, from those caught up in car bombings in Iraq to those battling cancer closer to home.
“Whether you’re overseas in a refugee camp or in the ER or an ambulance, and you watch people who are watching their child die, it breaks you. It breaks them. I see it, and I have no excuse not to see it or to not address it,” he said.
“You watch the news, and you see people [in Iraq] shooting or targeting children or using them in war, and I think a lot of people think, ‘I feel so helpless.’ But I’m thinking, ‘It’s horrific, and if it was my kid being trapped or targeted by these people, I would hope someone would try to help them.’ That’s all I can do — try to help.”
Jones said he doesn’t feel society does enough to make sure kids are cared for and safe.
As he prepares once again for this year’s toy drive and bicycle giveaway, going door to door to local businesses to ask for support, he said, “It’s Christmastime. Kids should be excited. These kids have hard lives. I want them to be happy just once in their life.”
©2019 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)