This is the time when everyone rolls out the feel-good stories of the year and, here at PGN, we are bringing you two stories for the price of one.
Marion and Jen Leary, 34, are doing their part to save the world a little piece at a time. We spoke to the terrific twosome about their charities, Red Paw Emergency Relief Team and Sink or Swim, and what makes them want to give back. Some of you may remember Marion as one of the founders of G-Room, one of the first rotating LGBT parties in Philadelphia.
PGN: Philly born and bred? JL: Yes, we’re both from Philadelphia — obviously, since we’re twins.
PGN: Tell me about yourself. JL: I’ve been a firefighter for about five years and I live in South Philly with my partner, two dogs, five cats and a turtle.
PGN: What’s the turtle’s name? JL: Rabbit. [Laughs.] It can be very confusing for my niece!
PGN: What was your first pet? JL: A beagle named Christmas. My mom named him. Then we had a German Shepard named Bolton.
PGN: What did you want to be when you grew up? JL: A vet! But since I went into firefighting, I use Red Paw to fulfill the part of me that wants to work with animals. We provide 24/7 emergency transport, shelter and veterinary care for animals involved in residential fires and other incidents.
PGN: What on earth possessed you to be a firefighter? JL: [To Marion:] Didn’t we have a Lego fire truck growing up? I don’t know! I just always wanted to do something to help people. I’m not the kind to sit on the sidelines and watch.
PGN: Do you have a damsel-in-distress complex? JL: [Laughs.] It’s more of a superhero complex!
PGN: Oh, which one would you be? JL: Superdog! ML: I never heard of him: Are you sure you don’t mean Underdog? JL: No, remember that picture I had hanging up when we were 10? It’s Superman’s dog, Krypto.
PGN: What was a favorite thing to do growing up? JL: Sports. I was into softball and volleyball.
PGN: Worst injury? ML: Can I tell? We were playing street hockey in roller skates and Jen really, really had to pee. Our mother had a little garden with a wire fence around it outside our house. As she ran inside, Jen’s skate got caught in the wire and she fell and broke her arm. JL: I just like to say I injured myself in a hockey incident.
PGN: Are you accident-prone? JL: No, I was a klutz growing up but then Marion took over the role. ML: I’ve had a separated shoulder, broken hand, knee injuries, sprained ankles and three concussions!
PGN: [Laughs.] Did you go into nursing just to take care of yourself? ML: What can I say? You play hard, you get hurt!
PGN: What did your parents do? ML: Our dad was a carpenter and our mom mostly stayed home, though she did have a cleaning business for a while.
PGN: You’re both compassionate people; did you get that from your parents? ML: Yes, growing up our dad was always helping out our neighbors and our mom had a nice big heart as well. My dad used to volunteer with the AIDS Fund and GayBINGO and got an award for being gay-friendly.
PGN: What was your scariest or most memorable moment as a firefighter? JL: I don’t know, I don’t scare easily. Right after the earthquake in Haiti, I went over with a team of nurses and doctors and did medical relief. My training as a firefighter gave me the skills to do that and I went back again last June. But I think that I’ve had more memorable moments through Red Paw. I’m a disaster responder for the Red Cross, so we go in and give assistance to the families. I founded Red Paw to give assistance to their animals. We’ll get a call from the Red Cross or fire department or even the people themselves and we’ll help them get food for the animal or provide foster care until they can get back on their feet. We do emergency transport, emergency vet care and shelter 24/7; we even help getting them vaccinated and spayed and neutered if necessary. All for free.
PGN: How did you get started? JL: A few years ago, I was at a fire and saw the owners of the home carrying their dogs out, screaming for help. I used my car to rush them to the vet hospital while the owners were giving them oxygen. Unfortunately, the dogs didn’t make it. Then in January last year there was a fire at an apartment complex in West Philly. Cats were taken out of the building in laundry baskets and rushed to the shelter without crates or any emergency vet care. So I proposed starting a nonprofit organization that could work hand in hand with the Red Cross and the fire department to help pets caught in fires and other disasters.
PGN: What’s a story that touched you? JL: Our first call ever was for six pitbulls. Their house had been burned down. Generally dogs don’t react well with strangers and, especially after a fire with all the noise and commotion, they get fear-aggressive. They don’t mean to hurt you: They’re just freaked out. We got there and were able to calm the dogs down and take them to Central Bark, which is a doggy daycare in South Philly. Some of them were wounded so we took care of that and ended up caring for them for about two months. The thing that makes it memorable is that it was our first day. If we weren’t there, if we had started a day later, I have no doubt that at least two of the dogs would have been put down. In the end, we were able to get the whole family back together.
PGN: What help do you need? JL: Volunteers, medical and emergency responders, transport volunteers and foster homes — and money.
PGN: Back to you ... First inkling you were gay? JL: Oh Lord, I don’t know. I have the worst memory. You would think I did drugs and I’ve never taken a drug in my life, but I have no memory. [Looks to Marion.] ML: Well, you came out after me. JL: But I must have had an inkling somewhere along the line? ML: [Laughs.] Clearly not! JL: I’ve always had a crush on Alicia Keys. That should count!
PGN: Are you single? JL: No, I’ve been with my partner Lori for 10 years. She goes to Penn and is getting a degree in anthropology and urban studies.
PGN: As the holidays approach, tell me a favorite gift. JL: The Lego fire truck! No, wait, our dog Theo. He’s a pit boxer that Lori got me for Christmas four years ago.
PGN: What was a twin moment you can share? JL: When we were in high school we switched classes once. I think I got the short end of the stick because I took Marion’s science class and she went to my lunch period.
PGN: Any twin weirdness? JL: Not really. ML: That’s not true, when I lived in Boston we would call each other up and we’d be wearing the exact same outfit. JL: I think that was just coincidence. ML: Every day?
PGN: So, you’re the nurse? ML: Yes, about 13 years ago, our good friend Gil [Thomas G. Kalt Jr.] was the first openly gay cop in the city. The three of us had made a pact that we were going to save the world — or at least parts of Philadelphia! I became a nurse and Jen a firefighter. He sadly took his life and Jen and I got superhero tattoos in his memory. I have a Daredevil on my arm and Jen has Green Lantern on her neck. But we always knew we wanted to help people. From the second we were able to, we used to participate in volunteer work. In Boston, I was the house manager with a program for people with AIDS and mental illnesses who were in recovery from drug and alcohol addictions. There was an amazing nurse who used to come and see my clients and she made such a world of difference. My one client used to call her his “Genie in a Bottle,” because she provided anything he needed with respect and care. She was the one who made me want to go into nursing.
PGN: So you’re obviously not afraid of blood. ML: No. I went from nursing school at Jefferson right into the medical ICU as a critical care unit, which was the toughest thing I’ve ever done, but now I’m the assistant director of a clinical research group at Penn.
PGN: What were you like as a kid? ML: Basically the same as Jen. I played softball and volleyball as well.
PGN: Except you were accident-prone ... ML: Not so much as a kid. It was as an adult that I got hurt. We both played professional women’s football with the Philadelphia Liberty Belles. In fact we were in the PGN for winning the championship. I was a running back but I was way too little to be playing the position, hence the concussions.
PGN: Favorite game? JL: We kill at Pictionary! ML: Yeah, no one wants to play with us ’cause I can draw a line and Jen will know what it is. Or she’ll draw a circle and I’ll guess that it’s supposed to be a car!
PGN: Did you grow up with a lot of extended family? ML: Well, we had a big Italian family until my grandma died, but we weren’t really close to our cousins, so we mostly were each other’s company. We also went to a Catholic school: For me it was the worst eight years of my life. It made me who I am but it was horrible to go through. That “It Gets Better” campaign was real in my life. It totally got better — it couldn’t be any better — but it was rough going at the time.
PGN: Was it homophobia? ML: Not per se. I liked girls since I was little, but I don’t think anyone knew. Just being a tomboy was enough. JL: Plus being twins made us different right off the bat.
PGN: What’s a favorite place you’ve traveled to? ML: Iceland. By far. Hands down the most amazing place I’ve ever been to. The immense beauty of the terrain — there are double rainbows and geysers and icebergs and hot springs and ... it’s just amazing. I went with my partner Lara and two friends and we had an amazing time.
PGN: Tell me about your life. ML: My partner Lara does environmental consulting and works for our neighborhood, Northern Liberties. We have a 6-year-old daughter, Harper, who is the best thing ever. And Scout the dog, who is a pitbull rescue.
PGN: Is Harper a tomboy or girly girl? ML: She’s a little girly girl. Definitely straight, well, as far as one can tell. I swore when she was born that I wasn’t going to dress her in pink and frilly dresses but that kid looks so cute in them I can’t stand it. She’s 6 and has me wrapped around her little finger! She’s a good kid, really smart and thoughtful.
PGN: So with a nurse mom and an environmental mom, is she going to grow up to save the world? JL: She’s already volunteering at the shelter in the neighborhood. ML: And she told us she started her own nonprofit, Pretty Pets!
PGN: So tell me about your nonprofit, Sink or Swim. ML: I started S.O.S. to help people who are uninsured or underinsured with medical expenses. People can donate through “Chip In” via our Facebook site. It’s been incredibly successful with donations coming in from all over the world. Our first recipient was a 24-year-old whose liver failed out of the blue. He had to have an emergency transplant and now for the rest of his life he has to take about 15 different, super-expensive drugs to stay alive. We were able to cover about six months’ worth of meds. Our goal is usually to cover one month’s worth of expenses, so people don’t have to decide between food or rent and paying for necessary medical expenses.
PGN: What prompted it? ML: A friend’s mom was talking about having to go without food in order to pay for her chemotherapy. It really got to me. In the ICU you’d see people stressed out not just worrying about if they were going to live or die, but how to pay for it if they came through. I had to do something. We can’t pay off someone’s entire medical bill, but if we can just give them a month or two where they don’t have to worry, it might be enough to help them make it through.
PGN: What are your thoughts for the holiday season? ML: I’d like for people to think about making charitable donations during this holiday season to organizations that need it, like Sink or Swim or Red Paws or whatever organization speaks to them, instead of buying throwaway store-bought stuff. It would be nice to be a giving culture instead of a materialistic culture.