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Georgia Firefighters Burn Foundation Provides Education, Prevention, Support, and Recovery

For 30 years, the Georgia Firefighters Burn Foundation has been serving Georgia’s firefighters, burn survivors, and the community that supports them through a wide array of programs and initiatives, from fire safety “blitzes” to financial support for medical centers and firefighter training to Georgia’s only summer camp for burn survivors. In a recent interview with GCN, GFBF Executive Director Dennis Gardin discussed the organization’s deep ties to its mission, and how it drives them to help burn survivors through every step of their journey to recovery.

Founded in 1982 by Dekalb area firefighters Bill Willmier and Don Williams to buy equipment for a burn survivor, GFBF has grown to a statewide nonprofit with close to a million dollars in annual expenditures and partnerships with more than a hundred fire departments across the state.

“Since firefighters started this organization,” said Gardin, “there is a real sense of ownership and engagement.” Most staff members—some firefighters themselves—have direct experience with a fire or know someone affected by one. Gardin reports that everyone working at GFBF is there to make a real difference in the burn community, “not just because they needed a job.” Gardin prides his organization for the way each staff member embodies values like dedication and empathy: “If there is someone out there that needs assistance, we are here to be that listening ear, no matter what.”

Everyone working at GFBF is there to make a real difference in the burn community, “not just because they needed a job.”

Education, prevention, support, and recovery are the building blocks of the organization’s outreach programs, a 360-degree response to the ongoing threat and traumatic aftermath of fires: “We support firefighters, because they are on the front line, and we educate the community on fire safety as much as possible,” said Gardin. “But people do get injured, so we support burn centers, and [for burn survivors] we have the children’s burn camp, support groups, and peer support networking.”

Connected to the Cause

Gardin describes his job as a “labor of love.” Having spent eight months in the hospital as a young teenager recovering from burn injuries to his face and hands, Gardin knows how much the help of the GFBF would have meant for his recovery and his family.  Presently, he dedicates every day to making sure that help is readily accessible to every burn survivor in Georgia.

Part of that dedication is keeping GFBF in funding, 80% of which comes from one momentous annual fundraising initiative called “Give Burns the Boot.” More than a hundred fire departments come together for Give Burns the Boot, which puts firefighters on the street, boots in hand, asking for donations. Though this initiative is highly successful, Gardin admits that it can be difficult “fundraising for and championing a cause that people don’t know exists.”

“There are thousands of people that get burned every year,” explained Gardin, “but people rarely see individuals out with visible burn scars.”

That means it’s even more critical for GFBF to get the word out through advocacy initiatives and partnerships; a recent awareness tour by Dancing with the Stars winner, burn survivor, and former Dalton resident J.R. Martinez  has certainly helped raised the profile of burn survivors locally and nationwide. And this year’s Fire Prevention Week, a campaign of the National Fire Protection Association beginning Oct. 7, will once again see the organization helping participating fire departments with everything from volunteer mobilization to marketing.

Prevention Programs

More than a hundred fire departments come together for Give Burns the Boot, which puts firefighters on the street, boots in hand, asking for donations. 

GFBF takes a number of approaches to fire prevention and safety, including a Smoke Alarm Incentive Program that provides and installs smoke alarms in Georgia homes; the Chesney Fallen Firefighters Memorial Grant, which has awarded 16 grants this year to help fire departments further their safety and prevention programs; and a joint effort with Georgia Public Safety Educators Association that uses statistical data to pinpoint neighborhoods most affected by fire injuries and accidents, and target them with a “Fire and Life Safety Blitz,” three days of awareness programming in schools, nursing homes, and community centers that begins with a family-friendly festival and ends with a grant to fund fire safety and prevention measures in the community.

GFBF also believes in supporting the men and women on the front line, granting them scholarships to attend conferences and receive further training. “Our only stipulation,” said Gardin, “is that they come back and teach others what they have learned.”

Supporting Burn Survivors

The GFBF’s most profound impact can be seen in their work assisting burn survivors recover, readjust, and thrive. That begins with ongoing support for Grady Burn Center in Atlanta and Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta, through extensive volunteer work and unrestricted funds that can be used for anything from medical equipment to a big screen TV for the patients’ lobby. They’ve also converted residencies across the street from Grady into temporary housing for patients’ families who live more than 50 miles away. And when firefighters are injured, the GFBF assists in any way possible, from sitting with family members in waiting rooms to running errands.

Naturally, recovery includes extensive physical and medical rehabilitation, but Gardin notes that “emotional and psychosocial recovery is often times far more difficult than the physical recovery.” To that end, GFBF believes the first step on the road to recovery is “changing the language”: instead of using the term “burn victim,” the GFBF calls patients “burn survivors,” a term that emphasizes “life after the incident.”

“The words we use mean something deeper in the overall recovery,” said Gardin, who has spent much of his life as a motivational speaker and community advocate. Before joining GFBF professionally, he spent 11 years volunteering, and found himself “hooked” after attending the GFBF’s Camp Oo-U-La, Georgia’s only camp program designed exclusively for young burn survivors. The camp hosts close to a hundred kids every summer, alongside counselors who are themselves survivors, each a role model spreading a message of authentic empathy and understanding that Gardin explains this way: “I don’t only speak to it, but I’ve also lived it, and I am living it.”

“Being burned is a unique injury, and I can connect with clients because I can literally say I know what you are going through, and mean it,” said Gardin.  “It’s an honor to help.”

Breauna Hagan is a Communications Coordinator at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.

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