Reach Out and Touch
Writer / Neal G. Moore
You might say that the Lawrence Fire Department’s Needy Family program is on a roll. “We help around 500 families a year, and not just at Christmas time,” explains the program’s chairman, Dino Batalis. For many years it has helped Lawrence families who are struggling financially, and Batalis believes that success means that the program is poised for growth. “Yes, I think we can take this to a new level. I have confidence in our citizens,” he says. It is, of course, the kind of charitable act one could hope won’t be needed in the future. That, however, seems wholly unlikely. In the meantime, there’s Batalis and company.
Spend some time with Batalis and you’ll quickly understand his passion for helping others. “I think it all has to do with the way I was raised: help when you can,” says Batalis, a longtime member of the Lawrence fire department and a battalion chief. He conceived of the Need Family program more than two decades ago to help Lawrence residents whose circumstances have them needing clothing or groceries or a few bucks for a tank of gas (Batalis usually meets them at the gas station and pays for the vehicle’s fill-up using donated funds.) Typical examples of Needy Family’s touch are a family whose 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,” explains Batalis. 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 paid for with private donations. In addition to Lawrence residents who contribute cash, toys and gently used household goods, many local churches and businesses also are involved. Some companies match dollar-for-dollar money donated by their employees. At Christmas, there’s always a need for toys and Batalis welcomes them with a couple of conditions. “They need to be new purchases, age-appropriate, and we don’t want them to be wrapped,” he explains.
Batalis wants people to understand that they are always welcome to come and assist with the preparation of the food boxes. “Sure, come on out to help. We can get the job done faster,” urges Batalis. Friday, December 19th a small army of volunteers will join Batalis and other firefighters at Station 38 (4450 McCoy St.) to fill several hundred boxes with food staples for delivery to hungry households in Lawrence. 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 following day (December 20). “Over the years, I’ve tried to make sure that everyone has a part to play,” says Batalis, who is especially gratified by the help he gets from people previously assisted by the program. “They understand. they’ve been on the other side of the situation, and they want to give something back.”
Batalis is convinced the time has come to take the Needy Family program to a higher level—where more people can be helped year round. He’s asking the community to answer the call by flooding the fire station with packing helpers on December 19th, and with additional monetary donations during the three weeks leading up to Christmas. Donations of money and toys are accepted at the Lawrence Government Center and Fire Station 38. Tax deductible receipts are available upon request. And, Batalis emphasizes that the program is a zero-sum game. “I’m especially proud that not one penny of donations goes into administrative fees,” says Batalis, who is quick to acknowledge the program’s success is owed to 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. Lawrence is the better for it thanks to Dino Batalis and the scores of citizens and businesses who acknowledge those around them who have monetary needs, and take the time and effort to ensure that a child has at least one gift under the Christmas tree.