Fire Buddies Spreads Cheer

Wyatt Blevins is one of the children in the Fire Buddies program. –Photo submitted.

Wyatt Blevins is one of the children in the Fire Buddies program. –Photo submitted.

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By Karen Haave
In December 2016, a young child battling cancer fell ill with a high fever. A group of Oak Forest Firefighters answered the 911 call, transporting the child to the hospital for life-saving treatment.  The experience was heartbreaking for them, and inspired them to want to do more.
With support from others at the OFFD, Project Fire Buddies was born. Since then the organization has expanded by 34 chapters and raised more than $250,000 to benefit families, with children struggling with serious illnesses.
Jackie O’Hara, a member of the board of the Manhattan Fire Protection District Chapter of Project Fire Buddies, Inc., said the goal is to spread a little joy in bleak circumstances.
“The organization was founded by firefighters, with a desire to offer support and give back to children fighting critical illnesses,” she explained. “We believe no child should fight their battle alone! We currently have four fire buddies in Manhattan, and I can attest to how wonderful this is for all involved.
 Project Fire Buddies recently held an inaugural gala to raise funds and sold out 800 tickets within days.
“The proceeds from this event will allow us to give more to the Fire Buddy families,” O’Hara added.
“We have only been a chapter since October and, so far, we’ve helped decorate two of our fire buddies’ houses for Christmas, brought Santa in the fire engine to deliver Christmas gifts from us, and had one very memorable girls’ day with two of our fire buddies, who are sisters. The spa day we did for them was pulled together by myself and many female firefighters from different fire departments, nurses, and a hair stylist. We provided manicures, pedicures, facials, and did the girls hair for our fire buddies, their older sister, and mom. Anna and Elsa surprised the sisters and sang songs, red stories, and even helped paint their nails.
“As of now, all our families are from Manhattan, but we will be visiting the schools this month and reaching out to the social workers and principals to let them know we are doing Project Fire Buddies. Because of HIPAA privacy laws, we basically have to be referred to the families.”
Kaylee Blevins and her husband, Doug, are enthusiastic supporters of PFB and the Manhattan Fire Department. They have a son, Wyatt – three, and a daughter, Haven – five.
Wyatt was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in September 2021. He is about a year and a half into treatment, with plans to ring the bell (which signifies the end of a tough chapter in treatment) some time this coming fall. 
“He has been receiving chemotherapy treatments through Lurie’s Children’s Hospital in Chicago,” Kaylee said. “The first year of treatment we had long days at the hospital every week. Wyatt has gone through various phases of treatment with different chemotherapy drugs. We have since moved on to less intense treatment, but Wyatt still receives daily oral chemo at home, along with special antibiotics, and he still has to undergo spinal taps in his treatment. 
“Fire Buddies has brought joy to our family through really difficult times. Our children have received generous gifts and experienced visits with their Buddies. Whenever Wyatt sees a firetruck he points and says. ‘Those are my buddies’. 
“Our Manhattan Fire Buddies have been extremely caring and genuine from the start. They have proven they have our family’s back. It really gets me emotional to see my son’s heroes look at him as their hero. It is a community that we’re thankful for and proud to be a part of.”
Jeff and Mandy Ronaldson shared similar gratitude for the organization. “We actually have two daughters who have become fire buddies,” Mandy said, “Mollie, 16, and Madelyn, 13.”  
The girls have a brother, Aaron, 20, who is away in Virginia at Liberty University, and Emma, 18, is a senior at Lincoln-Way West High School in New Lenox.
“Mollie and Madelyn were diagnosed with Juvenile Sandhoff Disease in 2016,” their mom explained. “This is an ultra rare inherited condition that progressively destroys nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. The girls developed normally until the ages of five and three, and then started to lose abilities that they once mastered. Juvenile Sandhoff is thought to be fatal by sometime in the teenage years.
“At this time, there is no cure or treatment for this disease. We spend our time in various therapies and treating symptoms as they come to make the girls as comfortable as possible.
“Mollie and Madelyn no longer are able to talk and can no longer eat by mouth. They both have a feeding tube for nourishment and are fully dependent on us for their daily needs. Mollie is still able to walk and loves watching movies and humming along to music. Madelyn has lost her ability to walk and has a few more complex needs than her sister. She does love Disney movies a lot, though.
“Project Fire Buddies have been such a blessing to the whole family. They decorated our trees with Christmas lights, which was so great! They created a wonderful in-home spa day experience for all three girls and mom. We had female firefighters, EMTs, and wives of firefighters come into our home with everything for a complete spa day. Also special guests included Ms. North America and Ana and Elsa from Frozen.
“The Manhattan Chapter of Project Fire Buddies came along with Santa and blessed the whole family for Christmas with gifts perfect for each of our children. We also have received family experiences, such as a zoo membership, Shedd aquarium membership, and Disney on Ice tickets for the girls birthday.  
“Project Fire Buddies is an amazing program, and the Manhattan chapter is beyond wonderful!   The experiences Mollie and Madelyn have been able to have these past couple of months have been an amazing blessing to our family and an encouragement to us when sometimes it’s hard to feel encouraged when you are in this daily grind. We are very thankful to the Lord for placing Project Fire Buddies in our lives.”
Tim and Megan Burns and their family found support from PFB even before they moved to Manhattan. Their three-year-old son, Brendan, was diagnosed with Stage 4 Neuroblastoma in July 2021 and relapsed in October 2022.
“Brendan is receiving all of his treatment at Comers Hospital,” his mom said. “Brendan has received multiple surgeries to remove tumors in his abdomen and around his brain, in addition to numerous rounds of chemo and radiation. Brendan had two two stem cell treatments and currently is receiving monthly immunotherapy treatment. Most of his treatments are done in-patient. Visits consist of anywhere from a one week to multiple weeks in the hospital.
“Fire Buddies has journeyed with our entire family throughout Brendan’s illness. They have supported us through their Oak Lawn location, when we lived in Mt. Greenwood, and to our amazement, they are here to support us through their Manhattan location, where we now reside.  
“Brendan looks forward to their visits, as well as getting a Birds Eye view of the fire trucks. The enjoyment on Brendan’s and (his sister) Maggie’s faces when they saw the outside of the house all lit up and decorated for Christmas was priceless.
“These fine men and women not only donated their time, their generosity was overwhelming.  Brendan and Maggie were both delighted with the gifts they brought for them to help brighten their Christmas. 
“My husband and I cannot thank the Fire Buddies Program enough. These men and women donate so much of their time to help children suffering with catastrophic illnesses. They bring these children joy, even during their difficult and painful treatments. It is so precious to see a smile on my son’s face when these selfless “Firemen” come to visit him.  
“God Bless the Fire Buddies Program, and God Bless the good works these generous men and women provide to children and families going through the hardest times of their lives.”
Dylan Ledvina, Manhattan PFB Chapter president, had equal praise for the “buddies” the group is working with.
“All of our families are very sweet and amazing people and have great support systems, so we are just a part of that support system and build relationships with these families,” he said.
“Our role for our Chapter is basically to communicate with the families, to find interests for wants and needs and try to make anything happen for them, plus also spending time with the children! We also assist with the fundraisers that Project Fire Buddies has going on, and we are also able to host our own Chapter fundraiser events that we plan on creating in the future.”
Serving on the Manhattan Chapter’s Board are: Ledvina, a full time firefighter/paramedic for the district; Tom McKay, a FF/PM, is  vice president; Lieutenant Eric Murphy is secretary; Lieutenant Kyle Eller is a board member, along with the district’s public education coordinator Jackie O’Hara.

The Ronaldsons are a Fire Buddies family. –Photo submitted.


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1 Comment

  1. Gary Humphrey on March 29, 2023 at 1:13 pm

    I’m Wyatt’s Pawpaw. Firebuddies has been so awesome to our family and others. Not only for being there for these kids but protecting our community. Thank you for all you do!




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