At 15 years old, Lillie Vehling is already a powerhouse of ideas and action. The freshman, at Notre Dame High School, in Sherman Oaks, is just a few clicks away from launching ‘Fire Family Ladder’ a project aimed at keeping LAFD families connected to their extended fire department families, after a firefighter is severely injured or killed.
Lillie knows that scenario all too well. In 2010, when she was 4 years old, her father, Captain Derek Vehling, now retired from the LAFD, suffered a major spinal injury during an on-duty accident. Lillie says after her Dad was hurt, the family stopped making their regular trips to various fire stations, to play, visit and hang out with other firefighter families and kids. Understandably, those type of social outings had to take a backseat to getting Captain Vehling on the road to recovery. But Lillie really missed seeing her friends and the fun she had at the fire stations.
“I felt immediately separated from the firefighter family” she says.
So, the ‘Ladder’ program is Lillie’s way of making sure other children (and family members) of injured or fallen firefighters don’t lose contact.
The program is twofold: First is the mentorship aspect. Lillie plans to help match and connect children of fallen or disabled firefighters. These relationships will act as a built-in buddy system of support to help navigate the emotional fallout following a parent’s injury or death. Having a friend to lean on during difficult times is invaluable and that bond can be life changing.
The second part of ‘Fire Family Ladder’ is fun-filled and celebratory. A summer barbecue and a holiday party are part of the masterplan to reunite firefighter families at least twice a year. Because of the current pandemic, no date has been set for either event, but Lillie is definitely moving forward with ideas and party planning, including her dream location.
“We’re hoping that we can do it at fire station 88 because it’s a huge station!”
Lillie is thrilled to be giving her time and talent to those served by the Widows, Orphans & Disabled Firefighter’s Fund through the ‘Ladder’ program. She considers it her chance to give back. After her father’s injury, the fund stepped in with welcomed, financial and emotional support. Helping to renovate the Vehling home to make it mobility-accessible was just one project the fund took on. And Lillie fondly remembers another occasion when her extended fire family showed up, a few years after her dad’s accident. It was Christmas time and Lillie and her younger siblings got a true taste of the holiday spirit.
“We woke up and we walked outside and there’s a firetruck and Santa Claus and toys. Every toy you could think of and bicycles, and it was all from Widows and Orphans,” Lillie says.
And the ‘Ladder’ program isn’t the first time Lillie has sprung into action. In middle school, she took part in a school sponsored fundraiser, with all profits going to the charity. This young entrepreneur’s idea was to sell paracords, woven bracelets made from the same nylon cord used in parachutes. So, a small group of friends and family helped Lillie handcraft the paracords, which are also known as survival bracelets. They were a giant hit at the school fundraiser. And because Lillie continued to participate in that event for the next three years, the paracords ultimately brought in about $5,000 for her charity of choice, the Widows, Orphans & Disabled Firefighter’s Fund.
Now, through ‘Fire Family Ladder’ Lillie’s goal is to help keep LAFD families, specifically the children, connected, engaged and supported after sudden and drastic life changes. She wishes the program was around when her father was injured. The aim is to get it officially off the ground in early May. The Covid19 crisis may have slowed it down some, but Lillie is full steam ahead, working with her mother, and using this unscheduled downtime to finalize details for the new program. It’s a program she hopes ultimately will give any children of fallen or disabled firefighters, hope and comfort just when they need it most.
To get involved and join Lillie in her mission, contact FireFamilyLadder@Gmail.com
By Patrick Stinson