Tenley Gillett, 30, is currently navigating her “probation year" and working "24 hours on and three days off" while enduring tests and even more training
In 2016, Tenley Gillett attempted suicide, but her life was saved by a local fire department. Now she's joined as a member.
“[I was] just struggling a lot with where I belong — where I should fit in — and that was something I had struggled with my entire life,” Gillett, now 30, tells PEOPLE.
In October, Gillett took part in the department’s annual pinning ceremony, where she was officially sworn in as a member of the Manchester Fire Department in New Hampshire.
Gillett shares that what happened in 2016 is not the reason why she wanted to become a firefighter. Rather, the 30-year-old, who is also in the U.S. Army Reserves as a firefighter, says, "it just kind of fell into place."
On the night of Feb. 19, 2016, Gillett jumped into the Merrimack River after a meeting at a gym where she says she was “berated” and told she “wasn't welcome there.”
"I was tired of feeling like I didn't belong anywhere," she says. Eventually, Gillett says she went over the edge and into the “freezing” water.
"I was very lucky I didn't hit any rocks," she adds. "It was fairly low water, and I don't know how much time it took or anything like that, but I came up out of the water and I tried to yell, ‘Don't call 911.' There was someone who was standing there, and I don't really think I said it very well because I could barely talk. It was so cold.”
She hung onto the rocks as authorities — including firefighters from the Manchester Fire Department — came to her aid, first trying to lower a ladder to reach her. When that failed, they used boats and grabbed her.
The avid CrossFitter, who now also owns a massage therapy and wellness business, says she has always been interested in some sort of service and “investigative work.”
She even had friends who had been part of the fire department who tried to convince her to join over the years. “I was like, ‘No, man. I'm too small. I don't think that's for me,’” she recalls telling one of them.
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But ultimately, she began her training and joined the Reserves as a firefighter in July 2021. Tenley says she continued her training and certification work, hoping to make applying to the Manchester Fire Department a more efficient hiring process. The department then formally hired her in September.
The full-circle achievement has meant a lot to the department and Chief Ryan Cashin.
“I couldn’t be more proud of Tenley,” Cashin said in a statement. “She has worked so hard to get where she is. She is truly an inspiration. The most basic job of a firefighter is to help people. Tenley is the perfect example of that, helping people on and off duty. We couldn’t be more proud of her.”
Gillett is currently navigating her “probation year" and working "24 hours on and three days off" while enduring tests and even more training — all to prove she’s earned her place. She's also in an advanced EMT class, which she's hoping to complete by March.
Despite her drive, the 30-year-old says she doesn’t see herself as “inspiring.”
"I've never thought of myself as that,” she explains. “I just try to work hard.”
She’s also grateful that her story has garnered attention, seeing her resiliency as a rallying cry for others struggling. No matter the circumstance, she says, "there's always help."
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741741 or go to 988lifeline.org.
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