Manhattan: ‘Fire Buddies’ Answer the Call for Families with Seriously Ill Kids

Brendan Burns started out with the Oak Forest Fire Department, which started the Fire Buddies Project in 2016. He and his family were thrilled to learn Manhattan also had a chapter when they moved to the village.
Brendan Burns started out with the Oak Forest Fire Department, which started the Fire Buddies Project in 2016. He and his family were thrilled to learn Manhattan also had a chapter when they moved to the village.

Fire Buddies was founded in December 2016 by a group from the Oak Forest Fire Department after responders had transported a young cancer patient to the hospital for life-saving treatment. Since then, the Manhattan Fire Department has been among the 34 chapters to help families of seriously ill children, including Wyatt Blevins, below, getting a hug from his big sister, Haven. (Photos provided)

By Karen Haave

While living in Chicago’s Mount Greenwood community, Tim and Megan Burns’ 3-year-old son, Brendan, was diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma in July 2021. He relapsed in October 2022.
At Comer Children’s Hospital in Chicago, Brendan had multiple surgeries to remove tumors in his abdomen and around his brain, numerous rounds of chemo and radiation, and two stem cell treatments.
Along with the surgeons and other staff at Comer, Brendan and his family had support from Project Fire Buddies. Fire Buddies was founded in December 2016 by a group from the Oak Forest Fire Department after responders had transported a young cancer patient to the hospital for life-saving treatment.
Since then, the organization has expanded by 34 chapters and has raised more than $250,000 to benefit families with children struggling with serious illnesses.
When the Burnses moved to Manhattan, they were gratified to find the fire department there also had a PFB chapter.
“Fire Buddies has journeyed with our entire family throughout Brendan’s illness,” Megan Burns said. “They have supported us through their Oak Lawn location, when we lived in Mt. Greenwood, Illinois and to our amazement, they are here to support us through their Manhattan location where we now reside.”
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 that 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.”
And how popular. Project Fire Buddies held an inaugural gala to raise funds on February 25, with 800 tickets sold out 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 manis, pedis, 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 of their families are from Manhattan, but they will be visiting the schools soon; reaching out to the social workers and principals to let them know about Project Fire Buddies. Because of HIPAA privacy laws, they have to be referred to the families.
Brightening lives
Megan Burns says Brendan looks forward to their visits, as well as getting a bird’s 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. …
“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.”
‘Those are my buddies’
Kaylee Blevins and her husband Doug have a son, Wyatt, 3, and a daughter, Haven, 5.
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) sometime this coming fall.
“He has been receiving chemotherapy treatments through Lurie’s Children’s Hospital in Chicago,” Kaylee said.
She said the first year of treatment was filled with long days at the hospital every week. Wyatt has gone through various phases of treatment with different chemotherapy drugs.
He has moved on to less-intensive treatment, Kaylee said, 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 that 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.”
A girls’ day in
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, 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 5 and 3, 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 are no longer able to talk and can no longer eat by mouth. They both have a feeding tube for nourishment. They 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, EMT, and wives of firefighters come into our home with everything for a complete spa day. Special guests included Ms. North America and Anna 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 have also received family experiences such as a zoo membership, Shedd aquarium membership and ‘Disney on Ice’ tickets for the girls’ birthdays.
“Project Fire Buddies is an amazing program, and the Manhattan chapter is beyond wonderful! The experiences that Mollie and Madelyn have been able to have these last 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.”
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.
Serving on the Manhattan chapter’s board are Ledvina, a full-time firefighter/paramedic for the district; Tom McKay, a FF/PM, vice-president; Lt. Eric Murphy, secretary; Lt. Kyle Eller, board member, and O’Hara, a board member and the group’s public education coordinator.
“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 … 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.”

Karen Haave is a freelance reporter.

The Ronaldsons — parents Jeff and Mandy, and siblings Mollie, Madelyn, Emma and Aaron pose this past Christmas. (Photos provided)




Pictured at a recent gala to raise funds for Manhattan Fire Buddies are, from left, firefighter/paramedic Tom McKay, Vice President; Lt. Kyle Eller Board member; firefighter/paramedic Dylan Ledvina President; and Fire and Life Safety Educator Jackie O’Hara Board member. Not pictured, Lt. Eric Murphy, Secretary for the Manhattan Chapter.




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