Last year, a routine call to transport a child with cancer to the hospital led a crew of Oak Forest firefighters to wonder how they could have a greater impact on the lives of these young patients and their families.
“We wanted to interact with these kids outside of an emergency situation,” said Oak Forest Firefighter Kurt DeGroot. “We knew we wanted to lift their spirits. When I was a kid I wanted a fireman to come to my house and hang out with me. So, that’s where we started.”
Their first stop was in December to deliver gifts to a local family. The firefighters learned about 6-year-old Ryne’s battle with cancer through Operation North Pole — a volunteer-based organization that works with Chicago hospitals to provide a day of fun and fantasy for families who have children battling life-threatening illnesses. The firefighters had so much fun playing air hockey with Ryne and his siblings that they went back for a rematch a few days later. They also invited the family to the fire house for dinner and a tour.
“It was a very humbling and inspiring experience,” said Firefighter Tom Jonkman. “The look on their faces as we pulled up to the house with lights and sirens blazing is something I will never forget.”
Soon after their visits with Ryne, the firefighters met Julieta, a second-grader battling serious health problems. Julieta and her brothers enjoyed a Pie Face showdown with the crew. This heartwarming yet hilarious home visit motivated the firefighters to officially create Project Fire Buddies, a program similar to Operation North Pole to encourage and inspire children and their families affected by cancer in Oak Forest.
Although the crew’s first two buddies haven’t hit double digits yet, their most recent buddy, Brianna, is in her teens. The 15-year-old high school student underwent a full knee replacement in April — just two weeks before Consolidated High School District 230’s Relay for Life event at Carl Sandburg High School. The annual event draws hundreds of people who gather as teams to help raise funds for the American Cancer Society. Several teams at this year’s relay were organized to show support for Brianna. But, she wasn’t sure she would be able to attend. That’s where her Fire Buddies stepped in.
“We are used to having fun with younger kids who just love the fire truck,” DeGroot told the Patch. “But Brianna is 15, so we didn’t want to embarrass her or do something that would be awkward for her. But we got together and found that bringing her there in the fire truck would be something special for her, and also not take anything away from Relay for Life.”
Once they arrived at Sandburg, the event went smoothly and all teams dedicated to Brianna were “cheering her on” as she entered, DeGroot said.
In less than a year, Project Fire Buddies has touched the lives of three local children. The firefighters are eager to expand the program. If you know a potential buddy in town, call 708-687-6050.