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Retired Firefighter Ray Fitzgerald Launches Local Philanthropic Effort

Photography Provided

When Ray Fitzgerald began volunteering his time for Pink Heals, a non-profit philanthropic program that has spawned chapters across the U.S., he knew he’d stumbled onto something special. As a retired firefighter, he was drawn to the organization’s straightforward approach — each Pink Heals chapter repurposes a firetruck and paints it pink, then recruits volunteers to hop on the vehicle for special supportive visits to sick and in-need individuals — and decided Howard County could benefit from just such a concept.

“There are local chapters all over and a group of volunteers also does national tours to visit sick people, and I can’t think of a better way to let those people who are suffering know that they’re not alone,” he says.

Fitzgerald became aware of Pink Heals while attending a local ice cream social benefitting cancer awareness, and he realized visiting local people suffering from illness and disease, to simply let them know there’s a group out there who cares, would be well worth his time.

“A Pink Heals group came to the Kokomo Fire Department on a day that I happened to be working, and we talked for a long time about it,” Fitzgerald recalls. “I ended up using one of my vacations to go on tour with them for two weeks and have done that several times since then.”

Pink Heals was founded in 2007 by Dave Graybill, a retired firefighter and former pro baseball player, and since then dozens of volunteer-based chapters across the U.S. and Canada have acquired their own pink firetrucks to help those in need.

After putting together a few local events at Hacienda Mexican Restaurant to raise some awareness about the program, Fitzgerald decided it was time to establish a local Pink Heals Chapter in Howard County.

The first order of business was to find the right firetruck for the job, and as it turns out, that search resulted in a special relationship forged in the fall of 2018.

“I found a truck online that was listed by the city of Kendallville for sale, and after I told them I’d be using it to start this charity, they called me back two hours later and said they’d talked to the mayor, Suzanne Handshoe, and she wanted to donate the truck to us,” Fitzgerald says. “The mayor is a bone cancer survivor, and she knew all about Pink Heals.”

Fitzgerald promptly named the truck Suzanne in honor of Mayor Handshoe and her fight with bone cancer and agreed to bring the truck back to Kendallville each year to lead the parade for her city’s Light the Night ceremony benefitting the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. The truck’s pink paint was donated by Kokomo Auto Supply, and a remodel came compliments of Johnson’s Towing and Recovery at no charge.

“Suzanne was a Marine and was the first woman to pass Combat Water Survival School,” Fitzgerald says. “She has incurable bone cancer, I can’t think of anyone better to name the truck after.”

Fitzgerald officially filed the paperwork for the Howard County Pink Heals chapter in September of 2018 and since then has made several visits to home residences and hospitals, including Kokomo’s Community Oncology Center last year.

Proceeds from Pink Heals Howard County t-shirt and hat sales go toward the organization’s gas, insurance, license plate and truck maintenance costs.

“I refer to us as cheerleaders for sick people,” Fitzgerald says. “When your team is doing badly you send the cheerleaders out to rally everybody, and the team does better. When you get somebody who’s going through a devastating illness and they’re ready to give up, we can go in and cheer them up enough that they’ll want to continue and do better.”

Fitzgerald and his team of volunteers make both surprise visits, coordinated with an individual’s family members, as well as scheduled visits with family and friends present. The group typically fires up the truck’s siren and lights for each visit and recruits the local police and fire departments to lead the way to their destination.

“At the first visit we did, the person whose life was changed was mine,” says Mickie Abresch, who works with the Indian Heights Volunteer Fire Department and currently serves as secretary of the Pink Heals of Howard County board of directors. “And it happens like that with everyone who gets involved. The people we visit are going through some pretty tough times, and we’ve seen that it means a lot to them that we take the time to go to them.”

A resident of Kokomo since the early 1960s, Fitzgerald started his career as a firefighter with the Indian Heights Volunteer Fire Department in 1978 and eventually transitioned to the Kokomo Fire Department in 1990 where he remained until three years ago. Even in retirement, he continues to help locals by jumping on a firetruck after all these years but now his trips to homes and businesses involve moral and emotional support.

“Making these visits in the truck changes people’s lives in a different kind of way and gives them a whole new perspective knowing people out there care, and they’re not alone,” Fitzgerald says. “It turns their light on.”

For more info on Pink Heals of Howard County, visit them on Facebook by searching “Pink Heals of Howard County.”

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