The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation held two weekend camps for children of fallen firefighters this past summer. These camps balance fun, silly activities with more serious work developing problem solving skills and dealing with the far-reaching effects of losing a parent. For some, it was their first opportunity to connect with other people their age who have experienced something similar.
The “little kids’ camp,” for children ages 4-6 and their surviving parents, was held at the CoCoKey Water Resort in Orlando, Florida, in June. Through a partnership with Comfort Zone Camp, the Foundation held a camp for children ages 7-17 in August at Camp Wyman in Eureka, Missouri.
This year, 39 children attended a Hal Bruno Camp, and 50+ volunteers were involved in making that happen.
Hal Bruno Camp is open to surviving children and stepchildren of firefighters who have been honored or are officially approved to be honored at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Emmitsburg, Maryland. There is no charge for children to attend camp. In addition, the NFFF has been able to assist with travel expenses and provide lodging for campers and their parents or guardians.
In an effort to help foster a continuing bond between the fire service and survivors of fallen firefighters, the Foundation has sponsored special sessions of the Comfort Zone Camp training specifically for members of the fire service. Last year we held trainings in Clayton, Missouri, so that members of the local fire service could volunteer their time during the summer camp in Missouri. To date, we have held three such trainings and trained over a hundred volunteers.
We have seen camp change the lives of children who have lost a parent in the line of duty. Each year, we see campers who arrive unsure and unhappy and leave with confidence and huge smiles on their faces. We also have many return campers, who count down the days until next year’s camp begins, anxious to reconnect with their camp friends and the adult volunteers who help support them.
Reflections from Volunteers
Camp also has a profound effect on the volunteers who work with these amazing children. Here are a few reflections from volunteers about their time in “the camp bubble.”
Nicholas Smith, Firefighter/Paramedic, Missouri
I was a first time volunteer at Hal Bruno Camp in Missouri this year. I am a firefighter/paramedic and father of two children with two on the way. Volunteering seemed like a valuable opportunity for me to find another way to assist a community in need. As a father and a firefighter I knew that I would have an experience that would go beyond just being there for somebody else, but I didn’t realize just how much I would be affected by the camp. From the first training I realized that I may be in for more than I bargained for emotionally. Hearing some of the stories and seeing some of the videos of previous camps really opened my eyes to what to expect.
The camp had a profound effect on my view of the strength that exists within these children, but also the void that is left when a parent is taken from them, no matter what age they are or how long ago it was. The camp made me want to be a better firefighter, husband, and father on a daily basis. I couldn’t wait to get home to hug and kiss my wife and children. Life is short, and tomorrow is not promised. Especially to those who put their life on the line every day.
Dixie Blatt Camp Nurse, Missouri
I was one of the camp nurses and was AMAZED at things I saw, heard, and observed through body language. To say these young people are resilient is a definite understatement!
I saw kids who really weren’t sure they wanted to be there enjoy themselves and decide this was not such a bad place to be after all!
I saw kids who have been to camp before help those who were new to camp (including the volunteers) see how much FUN they could have!
I saw men and women, who I see on a pretty regular basis, open up in ways I have never seen before. My respect level for all the Big Buddies, especially those who were experiencing camp for the first time, has grown immensely!!
The camaraderie between the counselors, the “Bigs,” the “Littles,” and the rest of the volunteers was fun to watch and be part of.
The Memorial Service is something I will never forget! It was fun, yet heart-wrenching at the same time.
THANK-YOU for allowing me to be but a tiny part of this INCREDIBLE weekend!
Devin Marshall Firefighter, Missouri
We big buddies were told to take a day for ourselves the following Monday after camp. I told myself going in, “This camp can’t be that tough. Why would I need a day for myself?” I proceed to the weekend camp as scheduled. Monday morning comes along, and as I’m getting up to drive to work and continue my life as a firefighter, I realize I’m in a mental fog. I’m not physically tired, but mentally. Why can’t I shake this feeling? I am having trouble just remembering where the coffee cups are in the firehouse. Why is it that all I’m thinking about are the kids and their stories from the weekend? Could I have done more, should I have done more for my little buddy? When will the next NFFF/CZC camp be, and how can I help?
I am a father of two and a full-time firefighter, and I have never felt greater joy to call myself a firefighter than after this weekend. Hats off to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. You guys are second to none in my book for what you do for these children!!
Wendy Norman Firefighter/EMT, Florida
I have been involved with the Memorial Weekend since 9/11 when it was held in Washington, D.C. I took classes that Hal Bruno was speaking at and loved the fact he wanted to have a camp for fallen firefighters’ kids to go and share their stories and be KIDS. Why wouldn’t I go to camp? I love it!
Does one ever get over the grief of losing a loved one so suddenly? I like what I heard last year from another Big– “We may not take away your grief, or it may never go away completely, but I am HAPPY to be here to help you through it today.” Resilience – the kids have been through
more than I can imagine, some so young they only have the stories told to them by friends, family, and other firefighters. These kids are stronger in their faith and love for family than a lot of people I know. I loved saying it again this year as I left camp: “I love looking up to my LITTLE.”
I am a better person for knowing these people through camp and the Memorial Weekend. I know I have touched and made a difference in the survivors of our fallen firefighters, both big and small. I wish I never had to meet them because of a loss, but on the other hand I’m happy to
be a part of their lives now when they need a shoulder and someone to talk to that GETS IT.
Chad Hoefle Fire Chief, Illinois
If I had to talk about camp, I would tell anyone who was able to listen – even if they were not willing. HA! I feel so strongly that these kids truly change lives every day. These kids have changed my life and have inspired me to (I hope!) change the lives of those who report to me and the people that I love. I look at my own life differently, as well as the way I conduct myself as a fire chief. WE MUST ALWAYS REMEMBER. We must always learn and talk about those who are no longer with us.
These kids tell a great story of survival. The show must go on and, as I always say, “You are not a hero because you gave your life. We are heroes the day we sign up to do this job.” From there on, we are doing just that – our job. There are dangers, but if we live each day to make sure our brothers and sisters come home, that is doing our job the right way.
Because of Comfort Zone Camp, my life will never be the same. I can say that without hesitation. My Buddy WILL forever be a part of my life, and his father will forever be a teacher to me and the people that cross my path in the fire service. That’s how his name will live on with me.