Buffalo Grove's Project Fire Buddies will pair firefighters with critically ill children

  • Buffalo Grove firefighter/paramedic Mike Manka discusses the fire department's plans to launch a local chapter of Project Fire Buddies.

      Buffalo Grove firefighter/paramedic Mike Manka discusses the fire department's plans to launch a local chapter of Project Fire Buddies. Steve Zalusky | Staff Photographer

Updated 4/10/2022 6:00 PM

Being a first responder these days means more than rushing to a fire or reviving a patient in cardiac arrest.

It also means getting directly involved in the lives of people in their communities.


Buffalo Grove's firefighters soon will enhance those efforts with the launch of a local chapter of Project Fire Buddies, which teams first responders with children battling pediatric cancer and other serious illnesses. Fire Buddies firefighters make the children honorary firefighters, visit them at home, play games, read books and make them feel appreciated.

Kurt DeGroot, an Oak Forest firefighter and the group's founder and CEO, and Buffalo Grove firefighter/paramedic Mike Manka, who spearheaded the local effort, shared the organization's mission with the Buffalo Grove village board last week.

The organization began in 2016, when Oak Forest firefighters took a gravely ill child with serious injuries to a hospital.

The experience struck a chord with DeGroot.

Today, the organization partners with local schools, fire departments and community members to identify children with serious illnesses.

In one case, firefighters were able to get a special bike for a 5-year-old girl battling leukemia. Now, she can ride through her neighborhood.

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DeGroot said the program is about building relationships -- playing a board game or a video game with the children. There are now 42 children in the program, he added, along with 20 chapters and another 32 ready to come on board.

Funding comes from donors and supporters. The donations go into a general fund, and the organization asks every chapter to keep it at "net zero."

Manka said while he was a student and football player at Lake Forest College, he was part of an organization The Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, which pairs sports teams with children fighting cancer.

He said he became close to a family in Lake Forest whose son was diagnosed with glioblastoma.

"I saw the positive impact that it had on (his) treatment and his family's life," he said.


When Manka became aware of Project Fire Buddies, it was something he wanted to bring to Buffalo Grove.

The chapter will work through village social workers and school guidance counselors to identify children and bring them into the fire department's family, he said. It also will conduct local fundraising.

Village President Beverly Sussman thanked the duo for starting the group.

"And I'm very happy that Buffalo Grove will be a part of it," she added.

To learn more about the Buffalo Grove chapter, visit its website, projectfirebuddies.org/buffalo-grove.

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