CHARLESTOWN — There’s one particular night, early on in the Charlestown Ambulance Rescue Service history, that Peter and Kathy Richards still recall as if it were yesterday.
A mother-to-be had taken a vacation to Burlingame State Park, still a month or so ahead of her expected due date, when she suddenly went into labor. Peter Richards, who served as the first president of the ambulance association, and a partner hurried to the campground on behalf of the service and because of how quickly the birth was progressing, they aided her through the process and delivered the baby right there at the park.
“If we didn’t have the ambulance service here, there wouldn’t have been anyone else within 20 minutes to come help,” Kathy Richards said Thursday evening as she told the story at a special ceremony held in honor of the agency’s founders and incorporators as part of the organization’s 50th anniversary celebration.
“I remember thinking to myself that night, this is why we had to do it,” she said. “Our town needed an ambulance service and we were in our late 20s, so we felt we needed to do our part.”
If not for people like Peter and Kathy Richards and the other founding members of the town’s ambulance association, Chief Andrew Kettle said the community would be a long way from having the 30+ member department and state-of-the-art equipment that it has today to help keep residents and tourists in the coastal southern Rhode Island community safe.
Thursday’s program marked another of several smaller celebrations held this year in honor of the Charlestown Ambulance Rescue Service’s 50th birthday. The agency celebrated with the public during an open house in June, and members were prepared to host a formal dinner celebration on Saturday evening.
Thursday’s event, however, allowed the department an opportunity to give a nod to the past and remember where the agency first came from, as well as just how far the department has come since the early days of owning a single ambulance that was housed in a stall at the back of the Cross’ Mills Fire Department.
“For members like myself, I have been with the department for 21 years and there are founders that even I am just meeting for the first time tonight,” Kettle said. “It’s humbling to hear their stories and to know everything we have today is because of the vision they had that they brought together.”
The program honored each of the five who signed the original proclamation in March 1971 to create the ambulance corps, with each family receiving an honorary patch. Alongside Peter Richards in signing the founding documents were Charles Abbruzzese, Donald Bennison, Beatrice Fox and John Schroth.
Charles Abbruzzese signed the documents but Kettle and Sue Monroe, a member of the ambulance service's Board of Directors and chairwoman of the 50th Anniversary Committee, each said it was Peter Abbruzzese, the organization’s first vice president, who was instrumental in making a vision of a safer community become a reality in Charlestown.
Then a senior student at Chariho High School, Abbruzzese said in an interview this week that he was close with a cousin, Edmund P. McGowen Jr., who had become the president of the North Stonington Ambulance Corps and he felt compelled to serve for the fire services, finding a home as a member in Hope Valley and soon after joining an ambulance crew.
He said while serving and answering calls, including several in his hometown of Charlestown, he realized there was a desperate need for a more local way to service emergency medical needs.
“If you needed help, you were stuck waiting for an ambulance from Hope Valley or Westerly, or even further and that was no good,” Abbruzzese said. “I wanted to do something, so my cousin and I spoke with then Charlestown Fire Chief Fred Main, who said if we could raise the money and get an ambulance then he’d make sure we had a stall for it. At that point, we were up and running.”
Upon incorporation, Abbruzzese said he knew it would be important to get other members of the community involved and so he recruited about 10-15 local volunteers and eventually took those who expressed the most interest and formed a board. Soon after, with the other members, the group began fundraising and after numerous donations, community dinners and other events, Abbruzzese said the newly-formed department was able to acquire a “surplus Cadillac ambulance for little more than a song.”
The rest, as they say, is now Charlestown's history.
That history was honored last week with a proclamation from the Charlestown Town Council, which was presented by President Deborah Carney on behalf of the council during the ceremony on Thursday. Carney said what the founding members were able to do was not only impressive, but has had a long-lasting, positive impact on the community.
“This honors those founders whose vision and determination was instrumental in the formation of the Charlestown Ambulance Service,” Carney said.
The founding members were honored to receive the recognition, and presented Kettle and Monroe with a gift of a plaque containing the picture and related information for each of the five incorporators. Kathy Richards, who has been a big supporter of the ambulance service over the years, said she hopes it will serve as a source of pride and reminder of where it all began.
Richards said that after years of service, she and her husband would ask only one thing of those in the community: remember the sacrifices made, and that today’s volunteers continue to make, to help keep the community safe.
“I used to say a prayer when Peter would hurry out, and still say a prayer if I hear and ambulance today, that they are able to help someone and come home safe,” Kathy Richards said. “What these volunteers do, day in and day out, is admirable and they deserve recognition.”