Operation Warm was about more than providing coats to Forest Park kids who need them to brave the winter. It was also about the warm hearts of the firefighters and their families, who welcomed Forest Parkers to their station last Sunday morning. They provided a veritable feast of sweets and drinks, but, more importantly, they showered the kids with attention.

The program was the brainchild of Phil Chiappetta, president of the Forest Park Firefighters Association but it was definitely a team effort. For the second year in a row, Chiappetta and his cohorts used the proceeds from their 5K race to purchase coats for local kids. 

“Each coat is made by union workers at Operation Warm in Atlanta,” Chiappetta explained. “They cost $35 apiece and we’re giving out 67 this year.”

The colorful coats were organized by size and gender on three tables in the firehouse. They had quilted nylon shells, hoods and were lined with fleece. Last year, the fire department distributed the coats at the Community Center but Chiappetta thought it would be more “personal” to host the event at the firehouse. It turned into a reunion of sorts for the fire personnel. 

Forest Park commissioners Joe Byrnes, Rachell Entler, Tom Mannix and Dan Novak were also on hand to soak up the atmosphere. For Entler, it brought back warm memories of hanging out at the firehouse when her father, Tim Rehor, served as chief. She recalled the unique camaraderie of the firefighters serving together and working on each other’s houses. This spirit of family was still evident, as even off-duty firefighters came to the event.

They were there to welcome the 24 families who were selected to receive coats. These families were identified by Karen Dylewski and Brenda Powers of the Community Center and notified through the District 91 schools. The first recipient was Nabil Elshareif, who picked up coats for his four sons. He was followed by Margaret and David Gregory with their two sons, Jonathan, 5, and Samuel, 3. The Gregorys consider the firefighters their neighbors, as they live directly across the street.

“It’s very comforting to know the fire department is here,” Margaret said. “It gives us a feeling of safety. We got coats last year. The teachers hooked us up. The coats are so durable.” Jordan Damato, the daughter of the union’s treasurer, helped Samuel try on an orange coat with blue lining. The fourth-grader wasn’t the only kid pitching in.

Jill Myers, 7, daughter of Travis Myers, organized a table crammed with coloring books, crayons and a stack of fire chief hats. Myers loaded up Jonathan and Samuel with giveaways. The boys also feasted on pastries and juice drinks. They ate their donuts, while Damato showed them the ambulance and fire engine.

The next family to arrive was Brenda Watson, with her two grandsons, Amar, 8, and Avani, 5. 

“I love the program,” Watson said, “We got a handout at Garfield School that told us about it.” Amar and Avani chose matching blue coats. The fourth family to arrive was Patricia Carmona and her daughter, Eileen, 9. She picked out a pink coat to keep her warm this winter. 

Just before the event ended at noon, an ambulance call came over the loudspeaker. As the ambulance roared out, it reminded everyone that these firefighters were more than comrades-in-arms, with kind hearts. 

They have jobs to do. They save lives.

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.

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