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On Fire For Lawrence: Dino Batalis Sparks Fire Department’s Needy Family Program

Spend a few minutes with Dino Batalis, and you’ll quickly understand what makes the guy tick: It’s extending a helping hand to someone in need. Fueled by a commitment to public service that he learned as a kid, it should come as no surprise that Batalis, 54, is a firefighter and battalion chief, and serves as chairman of the Lawrence Fire Department Needy Family program. According to Batalis who grew up in South Bend, “I think it all has to do with the way I was raised: Help when you can.”

In its 24th year, the Needy Family program helps Lawrence residents whose circumstances have them in need of clothing or groceries or a few bucks for a tank of gas. Typical examples of Needy Family’s touch are a family who has been burned out of their home, or an individual crippled by long-term unemployment. With donated clothes on their backs and food on the table, the gas money pays for transportation to job interviews or necessary errands to get back on their feet.

During the Christmas season, Needy Family plays Santa’s helper by giving toys to local kids who might not otherwise have a gift under the tree. “My parents were always helping someone in need,” explained Batalis. “I know they often did without to make sure that we kids had what was needed.” In its early days, the program was limited to operating a few weeks at the end of each year. In 2006, Needy Family became a year-round function with an annual budget north of $25,000 – all of it from private donations.

It was in 1988 that fellow firefighter Jim Hardie met Batalis, who had stopped by the station asking what he needed to do to join the fire department. “Shortly after Dino started, we realized right away he had this genuine commitment to helping people. From the beginning, Needy Family was his concept. Now, it’s grown into a huge production.”

Firefighters unload food purchased from donations prior to delivering the Christmas “care packages” to needy families in Lawrence. (Photo courtesy of Robert Crouch)

Four days before Christmas this month, Hardie and a small army of volunteers will join Batalis and other firefighters at Station 38 (4450 McCoy Street) to fill several hundred boxes with food staples for delivery to hungry households in Lawrence. It’s an impressive human assembly line that packs $15,000 worth of food in about half an hour or so.

Fittingly, a version of the old “firemen’s brigade” is employed as different teams add pasta or canned goods or sugar and flour, while others pack in hot dogs, bread, fresh fruit, and so on. Then, the boxes are passed hand-to-hand for loading into a refrigerated trailer for storage until deliveries are made the morning of Dec. 22. “Over the years, I’ve tried to make sure that everyone has a part to play. We’ve got a guy who’s 84 years old helping sort boxes,” said Batalis, who is especially gratified by help from people previously assisted by the program. “They want to give something back.”

Sadly, the challenging economic times of late have left a mark on the community. “It’s a bittersweet thing,” lamented Batalis. “The need has grown much greater, and obviously the cost of toys and groceries has gone up.” However, Batalis said the community has stepped up. Donations have remained steady, even increasing a bit. “I’m blessed to say our program’s financial base has not been affected, but there’s more need among Lawrence families.”

Batalis has always bought food in bulk. The resulting discounts really beef up the program’s buying power and help stretch dollars. That’s why the preferred form of assistance is cash donations. “I’m especially proud that not one penny of donations goes into administrative fees,” Batalis emphasized.

Food boxes are prepped by volunteers and delivered the Saturday before Christmas, just in time for the holiday season.

For Lawrence Fire Chief Mark DeLong, an added value of Needy Family is the opportunity for his department to connect with the community it serves, in a relaxed atmosphere. “It’s not a fire run or an emergency. It shows a different side of the fire department,” said DeLong, who added that firefighters have enjoyed Needy Family from day one. “It’s always been a source of great pride, and it’s very nice when people say ‘thank you’ and they really mean it.”

Batalis is quick to acknowledge the program’s success is owed to the generous donations of citizens and local corporate partners. Another key is the blessing of city hall. “I’ve worked for four mayors and all have been totally supportive.”

Ultimately, the value of Needy Family lies in the difference made in people’s lives. Hardie, 47, has never forgotten the expressive eyes of the boy he once gave a football. “It meant the world to him, and you leave thankful all the more for what you have.”

Lawrence is the better for it thanks to Dino Batalis, a man who just likes to help people.

Checks sent to: 9001 East 59th Street, Suite 205, Indianapolis, IN 46216. Checks should be made payable to: “Lawrence Fire Needy Family.” Drop offs at the Lawrence Government Center.

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