by Annette van de Kamp-Wright, Jewish Press Editor
In May of 2008, Ray Somberg was having lunch with his friend Jerry Hoberman. They talked about the images they saw on television on Sept. 11, 2001. Like most Americans, they remembered seeing panicked people trying to get away from the horrendous terror attack.
“Except for the firefighters and policemen,” Ray said, “who ran the other way: into the collapsing buildings, trying to save whomever they could.”
350 firefighters and 60 police officers died that day.
“Of course,” Ray said, “at that very moment in time, appreciation for these heroes was at an all time high. But, years later, that is no longer necessarily the case. Jerry and I came to the realization that it’s all too easy to take these heroes for granted. They are on the job 24/7, they never close. We felt guilty.”
In Omaha, police officers are dispatched to an incident 240,000 times per year. This equates to one incident every 2.2 minutes. Fire Department personnel respond to 10,000 fires and 32,000 medical calls annually. First responders are there when flood victims need to be rescued, when someone is injured in a car accident, and when there is a natural disaster.
Media attention for first responders hasn’t necessarily shrunk these past years, but it certainly has changed. All too often we especially see police officers in the news criticized, and tensions are high in some areas.
Jerry and Ray decided to set up a foundation, dedicated to showing appreciation to first responders. They wanted to say thank you not by merely paying lip service, but by really doing things, scheduling events, getting involved.
“June 10, 2010, was our first big event,” Ray said. “We had volunteers at the 50 busiest intersections in Omaha, holding signs announcing it was “Firefighters and Police Department Appreciation Day.” We held a luncheon during which we raised $650,000, and that enabled us to donate equipment that was critically needed. Volunteers served over 900 lunches at various precincts and fire stations. We had demonstrations of the horse patrol, the canine unit, the jaws of life, among other things.”
The Kiewit Foundation bused in 2,000 children of first reponders. “Between 2,700 and 3,000 first responders and their families were there,” Ray said. “There was face painting, ice cream, pizza; we had a concert, fireworks and bouncy castles. The best part? Everything for the families was free.”
The First Responders Foundation’s Board of Directors counts 23 members, six of whom are members of our Jewish community. Together, they are responsible for raising the funds that made the appreciation events possible.
“We serve lunches to our heroes annually and will continue to do that,” Ray said. “Our biggest fundraiser was the luncheon we held at what was then the Qwest Center. We had many notables as guests.”
The proceeds from this luncheon paid for a number of necessary items. The Foundation has purchased 60 non-contact infrared thermometers, which allow medical personnel to miniminze the spread of communicable diseases. Life-saving cardiac defibrillators have been purchased for public pools, and personal alert safety systems were given to firefighters to allow them to communicate with the Commander during dangerous situations. The police helicopter has been outfitted with a thermal imaging camera, and the police department now has a “skid car,” which helps provide real-life training for every police officer on maneuvering cruisers during a high speed chase or less than perfect weather conditions. Funds have been allocated to DNA testing, body cameras, free carbon monoxide and smoke detectors and fire education materials for 3-5 year olds.
This March, Ray and the First Responders Foundation were honored by the Heartland Red Cross with the Commitment to Community Award during their “Heroes in the Heartland” event.
“I think what’s so important,” Ray says, “is not only to say thank you to those first responders, but to have actual events and programs in place. We get into the schools, we communicate with the departments, we connect wih the Boy Scouts, and all the initiatives combined make a real difference.”
In June 2015, the First Responders Foundation will once again deliver 900 lunches to 40 different police and fire stations around Omaha to show appreciation for their dedicated service. Each brown bag lunch is decorated with notes of gratitude from area school children.
“For officers and firefighters, many days can go by in their career before someone says ‘Thank you,” Ray said. “They don’t take the job for the accolades, they take it to help people, so when these lunches are delivered, a cold lunch suddenly becomes a heartwarming gourmet meal.”
The Foundation is also in partnership with the Veterans in Business Forum to sponsor the Salute Our Military and First Responders Creighton Baseball Game in May of this year. It will include a fly-over, a paratroop drop, a game between Creighton and Seton Hall and a large fireworks display immediately following the game.
In June of this year, the Foundation will hold its first golf outing, and First Responders “Action Day” 2015 will take place on Oct. 3.
Then, there is the ‘minute of silence’ on Sept. 11, and the annual signature event, the Sept. 11 Memorial Benefit, which will be held on Sept. 17 this year.
More details will be published closer to those dates; in the meantime, for more information about the First Responders Foundation, go to www.firstrespondersomaha.org. You can also call 402.672.6331, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.