072419_MNS_Rotary_fire

From left, Vonda Malbrough, the Atlanta Fire Rescue Foundation’s development director; Shirley Anne Smith, the foundation’s executive director; Michelle Middlebrooks, the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department’s battalion chief for the Buckhead stations; David Bockel Sr., a Rotary Club of Buckhead board member; Greg Davis, the club’s president; and Elizabeth Gill, the club’s signature project chair; hold a check for $25,000, part of a three-year commitment of $75,000, at the club’s July 15 meeting at Maggiano’s Little Italy in Buckhead.

Elizabeth Gill’s daughter, Rachel Thorn, died from injuries sustained in a fire at a Buckhead condo building in 2016.

“The fire was started by a downstairs neighbor who thought it was a good idea to fry French fries and then go to sleep,” Gill said. “Everyone in the building got out alive except Rachel and her dog Bunny. The brave firefighters got her out (though she later died). Imagine running into a burning building with a 75-pound pack on your back, up two flights of steps and carrying a person’s body on your shoulders. These men are truly heroes.”

Thorn died at the Grady Memorial Hospital Burn Center about 18 hours after the fire, and Gill decided to help the firefighters who tried to save her daughter. She and her fellow Rotary Club of Buckhead members announced at their July 15 weekly lunch meeting at Maggiano’s Little Italy in Buckhead that they are donating $75,000 to help upgrade the five fire stations in Buckhead (Nos. 3, 21, 26, 27 and 29).

About a year ago Gill and Greg Davis, the club’s 2019-20 president, toured Buckhead’s fire stations and decided to focus its signature project for 2019-20 on upgrading those stations, with plans to raise the funds over a three-year period.

“It was truly an education,” Gill, who is chairing the project, said of the tour. “They live in the fire stations three days a week and then they’re off four days. They work 72 hours a week. The conditions of the Buckhead fire stations are abysmal. …”

The club also got involved with the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department through Camp Ignite, a program in which young women interested in a career as a firefighter can get hands-on experience from female firefighters with the department. The club donated nearly $5,000 to help fund the camp. Shirley Anne Smith, executive director of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Foundation, the department’s fundraising arm, said Camp Ignite was so successful that the department started a second similar initiative.

“One of the things we’re doing is Camp Ignite,” Gill said. “I hope the community, (including) Buckhead Rotary members, will come forward and (help) the foundation. They definitely need funds. Some of the stations are like frat houses. It’s the shabbiest furniture at the station (No. 26) at Howell Mill and Moores Mill roads. There’s no cabinet doors in the kitchen.”

She said her daughter’s death spurred her into action.

“It has to do with Rachel,” Gill said. “They (the firefighters temporarily) saved Rachel’s life. So whatever I can do to help them, I feel like I owe then. She didn’t live, but I want to help them. It’s in my DNA to give back. (The stations are) right under our noses. You walk in and say, ‘Ugh. You live like this?’”

While the city of Atlanta pays for basic services the fire stations provide, not everything is funded by the city. Gill said the firefighters have to pay for their own Internet and cable service and their own food and drinks.

In the past other organizations have aided their local fire stations. In 2008 the Mt. Paran-Northside Citizens Association raised $172,000 to make improvements to Station 27 on Northside Drive.

Smith leads a foundation that channels donations from individuals and businesses to help pay for items such as equipment and training. She said the club’s donations will help improve firefighters’ quality of life.

“With the stations themselves, it’s really where the firefighters live, and they live there more than they do at home, especially with the overtime they’re working due to (staff) vacancies,” Smith said. “We hope Buckhead will be the trendsetter for the rest of the (city). We have 36 other stations to take care of. Thank you so much for your support.”

She said she’s “completely overwhelmed” by the club’s help.

“With the stations,” Smith said, “it reenergizes and rededicates the (community’s) faith in the firefighters to let them know they support them.”

For more information on the foundation, visit www.atlfrf.org.

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