By Sadie Hunter
Lawrence Fire Dept. Chief Dino Batalis has been around Lawrence his entire life, and for the past 28 years, he’s been in charge of the city’s largest giving-back campaign, the Christmas Assistance Program, which kicked off Nov. 22.
The program donates food, clothing and toys to underprivileged Lawrence families.
This year, the Lawrence Fire Dept’s Family Assistance Program has already assisted 575 families, but Dec. 17’s annual Christmas Assistance Program gave food and toys to 175 families alone.
The night before, on Dec. 16, volunteers from the community, city administration, LPD and LFD volunteered to pack food boxes and organize toys at Fire Station No. 38 for families making their pick-ups the following day. Each family could take home two boxes. One box contained dry goods like cereal, pasta, baking ingredients and more, and the other contained fresh foods like fruits, vegetables, meats and refrigerated items. Kids also picked out toys.
“The money is donated, and then we purchase the food from Walmart, and they give us pretty good deals,” Batalis said. “Then, all the toys come solely from donations and donated cash, where we go out and buy some toys. Last year, there were more than 700 kids who received toys. Most of the names, for families we give to, come from the schools, from the social directors.”
The program began in 1988, Batalis said. It was started when firefighters pitched in money to help three less-fortunate families.
“Last year, we served over 500 families. So now, we’re a 501c3 nonprofit, so businesses and community clubs will give to us because our buying power is so much greater. There’s almost $25,000 worth of food purchased this year,” he said. “There are probably 120 volunteers, including community members, public safety officials, the Lawrence Township trustee and constable, the mayor and more. It’s a whole mix of people.”
“This event is probably one of the better examples of what can happen in a community like Lawrence when people come together and are able to really donate their time,” Lawrence Mayor Steve Collier said. “We don’t have any problems getting enough people to help out, and it’s that way every year.
“Dino’s the guy that got this all started,” Collier said. “He has been here in the city for most of his life, and this all grew because of him, because of his willingness to commit. So, when you have people like him who take this on, it’s a big deal. It runs very smoothly because it takes a lot of planning, and he does this all on his own time. It’s very impressive.”
Lawrence Police Chief David Hofmann said the annual event creates a bond between the community and public safety officials.
“The police officers and firefighters in Lawrence, and really everywhere in our state and country, they work together all the time, and usually it’s on events that are negative – car crashes, deaths, fires, people not being good people, those kinds of things,” Hofmann said. “So, for us to come together in an event like this where we’re collaborating and working hard to help the disadvantaged, not only does it help, I think it builds a bond between them and our police officers, firefighters and community members. We experience, collectively, people who are down on their luck, but it doesn’t make them bad people. There’s a lot of poverty and people who are working hard that just can’t make ends meet. For me, this is an outstanding opportunity to try to lift them up as much as we can.”
To donate to next year’s drive, people can visit the fire headquarters in Lawrence’s city building at 9001 E. 59th St. Checks can be made out to Lawrence Firefighter Family Assistance.
BY THE NUMBERS
- 120 – Approximate number of volunteers for this year’s campaign.
- 575 – Families helped in 2016 by the LFD’s Family Assistance Program.
- 175 – Families helped during the Dec. 16-17 food and toy drive event.
- 2 – Boxes of food each family received.