Dream come true: Local man becomes firefighter despite the odds
Any time the family made a trip to Johannesburg, South Africa, from their town four hours away, a young Renier Steenkamp begged his parents to bring him to the fire station. Now, Steenkamp has served as a firefighter at the Hastings Fire Department for five years after a tough road to get here.
Being a firefighter appealed to Steenkamp at a young age for many reasons — one being his "military-style" upbringing, something that is common in South Africa, Steenkamp said. It had started with his grandfather and trickled down to his father.
"Everything was on time, strict, routine. I also love extreme sports and danger. That is why I wanted to get into it," Steenkamp said.
His passion for wanting to be a firefighter reignited as a young adult when he was sitting with a client on Sept. 11, 2001, and news of the terrorist attacks in the United States came on the television.
"All of the cops rolled up on the scene and everyone started rushing in. I saw on TV, all of these uniforms starting to work together. I realized I need to do this," Steenkamp said.
But in South Africa, Steenkamp said politics and other circumstances made it almost impossible to be a firefighter.
Instead of following his dream, Steenkamp had his own trucking business, delivering food products from South Africa to Zimbabwe. However, the economy sank and Steenkamp lost his business.
Going across the Atlantic
Steenkamp knew he needed to find something else to do, so he went online and started searching for opportunities that could get him to the United States. Through his search, Steenkamp found the H-2A program, an agricultural program that allows people to acquire visas to work with farmers in the United States. Workers come in the spring and the visa ends in December, after which the workers have to leave the country.
In January 2010, Steenkamp called an agent with the program in South Africa and expressed his interest.
"She told me that people applied in November and farmers get their permits in early January. It was full. It was bad timing for me to try this. But I had it in my mind that I was going to make this work," Steenkamp said.
Sure enough, a few days later, Steenkamp received the call informing him that there were two farmers who had people cancel on them and that one of the spots was his if he was still interested. Steenkamp headed to North Dakota in March 2010.
"In that time in North Dakota, we were running potatoes up to Grand Forks and I met a farmer from Minnesota, just south of Hastings — the Molitor Brothers," Steenkamp said.
Steenkamp finished out the season at the Molitor Brothers Farm and fell in love with Minnesota. The Molitor Brothers asked Steenkamp to come back the next year, when he met another family that helped him obtain a winter visa to work with them and their cattle. Although his plan was to do the visa program for three years and then start up something new in South Africa, Steenkamp decided to move to the U.S. permanently, where he got a construction job.
Childhood dream comes true
From there the stars aligned. Five years ago, Steenkamp happened to be in the right place at the right time.
One day on a construction job, Steenkamp called the site's homeowner with a question. When the homeowner came home, Steenkamp saw that he was in uniform — it was Hastings Fire Chief Mike Schutt.
"We started talking and he asked me how I do my work by myself. I told him I can do a lot by myself and then I think it sparked some interest in him," Steenkamp said. "He asked me if I wanted to become a firefighter. I couldn't believe it."
The next day, Steenkamp met with Schutt to discuss how he could be a firefighter. Steenkamp took a position as an on-call part-time firefighter and started fire school.
Steenkamp, with English being a second language, struggled with terminology in the beginning. However, Steenkamp had classmates who were willing to help him through it. He passed all of his fire and hazardous materials tests, but when it came time for EMT training, Steenkamp had to put up more of a fight.
"At the end it was just a struggle and I could not pass these tests," Steenkamp said. "One night I just got mad and I told the instructor that I was done, I was quitting and that I couldn't do it anymore. I left and then John Townsend, the assistant chief, called me the next morning and he told me that I wasn't going anywhere and to talk to him before I made any decisions."
After talking with Townsend, Steenkamp refocused himself and made sure he was applying everything he knew when he retook the test. He passed the EMT basics and then passed the national exam. He had all of his qualifications to be a part-time firefighter.
But Steenkamp wasn't done. He wanted to be a full-time firefighter, which required him to be a trained paramedic. The qualifications to get into a medic program include 50 calls on an ambulance and passing English and math tests, Steenkamp said.
Steenkamp worked hard, going down to the station with any free moment to get his 50 calls. He, along with an old classmate, passed all of the prerequisite tests and was accepted into the program.
"We entered the program and it was a shock. Everything you learned in EMT— it was 10 times more," Steenkamp said.
For an entire year, Steenkamp worked every day, would run back home, put on his uniform, and then go up to Hennepin County for school. After class, he went to his clinical, be done by 4 a.m., come back to Hastings, and then get ready to go to his construction job. All the while, any availability he had, he gave to the Hastings Fire Department.
"I was never home. I saw my wife so little, but she was very supportive of this whole thing," Steenkamp said. "I can't tell you today how I did it, but it paid off. I think they saw that I was determined to do this."
When Steenkamp completed paramedic school, two positions were open for full-time firefighters at HFD. After going through interviews, Steenkamp received the call that he was chosen for a full-time firefighter position.
"I couldn't hold it in. I broke down and started crying in the middle of my garage. I can't explain that feeling," Steenkamp said. "My dream came true. Thirty years, but it came true. It is the best job in the world. It is the best feeling for me to come into work every day. I love it. I can't think of doing anything else."