Buffalo Grove Fire Department revives child’s legacy
Fire Chief Terry Vavra reads a book about fire safety Feb. 20 to an audience of Kilmer students. The Department donated books to the school library in honor a boy who died in a fire near the school 19 years ago. | Ronnie Wachter~Sun-Times media
FIRE SAFETY FOR CHILDREN
Advice from the Buffalo Grove Fire Department:
• Matches and lighters are not toys;
• If you see a fire in the house, get out. Do not hide from the fire, run away from it;
• Designate a place outside the house where the whole family will meet;
• 911 can be dialed for any police, medical or fire emergency. And kids need to know their home address.
Updated: February 28, 2013 8:01AM
BUFFALO GROVE — For years, no one knew that the legacy of Grant Wonders still had more to give.
But during a inspection of the dusty corners of Village Hall’s accounts last year, auditors found that the fund set up to honor a 2-year-old who died in a fire 19 years ago still existed, with money sitting in it.
Last week, Buffalo Grove firefighters used the money to complete its original, nearly forgotten mission: bringing books about fire safety to local elementary schools.
“It was an opportunity for us to do one more thing” in Grant’s name, explained John Gilleran, the department’s public education and information officer.
“This was the last of the money,” he added. “It is closed out.”
The Fire Department spent the last $300 of the Grant Wonders Memorial Fund to buy 33 hardcover children’s books, each about firefighters and fire safety. Firefighters delivered the books to the three schools where the first waves of similar books went 19 years ago: 11 volumes each for Joyce Kilmer, Longfellow and St. Mary schools.
On Feb. 20, when firefighters stopped by Kilmer — only a few doors away from the house that had been Grant’s home — Chief Terry Vavra sat down in the library’s rocking chair and read one of the stories to a group of students.
“This is the age group where we want to get our message out,” Vavra said later. “As tragic as this was, there’s always the chance to help kids understand.
“We’re fortunate we don’t deal with this a lot,” he added.
The tragedy Vavra spoke of occurred on Jan. 27, 1994, at the Wonders’ home, 714 Golfview Terrace. Grant’s father was working outside the house, and believed his son was napping. But Grant had awoken and found his father’s butane lighter.
When his father realized that the house was on fire, with his son inside it, he tried to rush back inside.
“While attempting to put the fire out on his own, the father got locked out,” Gilleran recalled. “He got locked out of the house, with his son trapped inside.”
In 1994, far fewer people owned cell phones and they weren’t small enough to keep in a pocket. Neighbors noticed the blaze and called firefighters.
By chance, an off-duty police officer, headed to the station to begin his shift, drove by and saw what looked like a burglar breaking into a house. When Grant’s father explained what was happening, both men tried to find a passable route inside.
They could not.
“The fire was so hot that neither the father nor the officer could get in,” Gilleran said.
Firefighters were able to save the house, but Grant did not make it. The Wonders repaired the home, sold it and moved away, but Grant’s tragedy was carved into Buffalo Grove’s memory.
“As a result, people started contacting the Fire Department, wanting to make donations,” Gilleran said.
No one found any documentation showing how much the memorial fund originally held, he added. Then-public education coordinator Skip Hart was in charge of the fund, but he died in 2011. Its intent was certain, though: donations would be used to buy books about fire safety for the nearby schools.
The books were delivered in their own container. Now-retired Battalion Chief Gary Belfield built three wooden model engine trucks that open up to reveal the books inside.
Pam Wuich, Kilmer’s assistant librarian, said their BGFD bookmobile had, for a few years, been relegated to one corner of the room. Recently, though, it returned to a prominent position, next to the reading area.
“We really wanted it to be used, so we pushed it to the center,” she said. “It’s always a big thing when we open the fire truck. It’s like Christmas.”
Kilmer’s model shows its age: a few of the decals have worn off. The plaque that Belfield placed on top in Grant’s memory, however, remains unblemished.
With time, the memory that had once been carved into the community wore down, too. Along the way, Village Hall lost track of Grant’s fund.
“It was dormant,” Gilleran said. “It was a subdivision of another account. It slipped everyone’s minds.”
But Village Hall performed a major audit in 2012, digging up everything it could find in the books.
“That’s when we discovered that we still had money in there,” Vavra said.
That’s when Grant’s memory came back to life. Fire Department staff and the three schools’ librarians also discussed buying fire-safety DVDs, but the final decision, though, was to close out the fund with new books.
Wuich noted that a few of the new volumes are in Spanish.
“The teachers will be excited to see those,” she said.
The 2-year-old would have been 21 by now. Gilleran noted that adults’ smoking habits have changed since 1994, resulting in fewer fires started by children.
“A lot of these kids don’t even know what matches and lighters are anymore,” he said.