9/11 Firefighters Make Fifth Trip To The Coast

The Mississippi Press - December 04, 2009

by CHERIE WARD

MOSS POINT Jacob Stork wants to be a firefighter when he grows up.

The 4-year-old Jackson County Head Start student was inspired by New York City firemen who arrived at the Moss Point center on Thursday with loads of toys and other treats for community children.

"They're bringing us toys and candy," Jacob said. "I want to be just like them when I grow up."

Tom O'Connor, a New York City firefighter and event organizer, told Jacob and the other students that to be a fireman, "You can never grow up."

"Because we're really just big kids at heart," O'Connor said, laughing. "You have to stay a kid to be a firefighter."

This is the fifth year that O'Connor and his team of 32 firefighters have driven a caravan of eight Penske trucks from New York City to the Gulf Coast.

The group arrived in Daphne, Ala., on Wednesday, and on Thursday also dropped off toys at Biloxi, Gulfport and Bayou La Batre, Ala., distribution points.

"We came down here after Katrina with six trucks of vital supplies and two trucks of toys," O'Connor said. "The toys were really just an afterthought. We thought that would be it, and now it's evolved into this huge tradition."

O'Connor said the Mississippi Santa Foundation Inc. was created as a result of the 2005 storm and keeps their fire departments busy raising money year-round.

He said this year, New York residents and businesses donated about $30,000 for the trip.

"We donated to 12,000 children last year," he said. "Hopefully, we'll donate to even more kids this year."

The firemen will split up today and visit the Head Start programs in all four areas to distribute toys, hand out books and firefighter helmets, and share fire-safety tips.

Volunteers from Junior Auxiliaries and other groups along the coast sort the items dropped off at each location by age, and create Teddy Bear Mountain a huge mound of stuffed animals from which children can select a special friend, O'Connor said.

On Saturday in Moss Point, the distribution will be open to the public from 9 a.m. to noon. Children age 10 and under can visit Head Start at 5343 Jefferson St. to choose two gifts and visit with Santa.

O'Connor said most of the team were first responders when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.

"We tell people where we're going and what we're doing and they say, 'It's been four years. How could they still need anything?'" O'Connor said. "I always tell them that we had 9/11 eight years ago and we still have a big hole in Manhattan. It's a good comparison on how long it takes to get things up and running. We had global assistance and we just want to repay some of that."

Vanessa Gibson, director of Head Start, said her 717 students are grateful the firefighters keep returning to Jackson County each December.

"We've formed such a relationship with these 9/11 firefighters that they call us throughout the year to find out what we need," Gibson said. "They are just as excited to be coming down as the kids are about them coming."

Moss Point Fire Chief Mike Dale said the men's dedication is vital to the community.

"They're a wonderful group to give of their time to assist families that may be in need this time of the year," he said.