Chief Leader - December 23, 2014by SARAH DORSEY
Seven years before Hurricane Sandy damaged the homes of hundreds of New York firefighters, a deadly storm devastated another coast 1,200 miles away. Hurricane Katrina left families all over the Gulf Coast homeless, and each year since 2005 a group of New York City firefighters has traveled to Mississippi and Alabama to help those affected.
Unions Aid Toy Drive
What began as a rebuilding effort has become a toy drive, and 26 firefighters this year visited the towns of Moss Point and Biloxi, Miss. to deliver 800 toys to needy children. They received donations from the Uniformed Firefighters and Fire Officers’ Associations, from businesses, non-profits and members of other firehouses. They also held raffles to raise money.
Each year, retired Fire Lieut. Kirk Lester plays Santa Claus. Many of the kids, who numbered about 400 this year, come from low-income families receiving Head Start benefits.
The tradition began at the initiative of Thomas O’Connor, a now-retired Lieutenant from the East Harlem firehouse of Engine Co. 53 and Ladder Co. 43, but members of at least three other firehouses have since joined in. Many of them responded to the Sept. 11 attacks.
In previous years, they would drive out in several moving vans stuffed with toys. Now they have the packages shipped.
The firefighters’ visit was almost cancelled in 2012, when they were scheduled to arrive just over a month after Sandy hit. They had plenty of rebuilding to do in New York, and they needed the toys for local children.
But several Mississippi firehouses stepped in and organized their own toy drive and invited the FDNY members to help distribute them.
Firefighters from Biloxi also returned the hospitality, traveling to New York that year to help with the post-Sandy rebuilding.
“It’s remarkable that they still remember what we went through after Katrina,” Jackson County, Miss. District Attorney Tony Lawrence told local website GulfLive.com. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to experience this and visit with these firefighters who, for most Americans, are still considered the heroes of 9/11.”
“We had a ball; it was like recreating the firehouse kitchen,” Lieutenant O’Connor said of the camaraderie among the firefighters, most of whom are now retired.
“The one thing I learned, the more work you put into charitable stuff the more you get out of it,” he added. “I’m a proud grandfather of two grandsons and [I was motivated by] the thought that they wouldn’t have a Christmas if we couldn’t afford it.”
He said this may be the last year if his group can’t raise enough money to return in 2015. For more information on the project, visit http://goo.gl/19RNJI.