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Marshfield, Mo. family among those benefiting from national camp for children of fallen firefighters

Published: Jun. 23, 2022 at 4:08 PM CDT
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MARSHFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - Each year, around 100 firefighters die in the line of duty across the country, leaving behind grieving families, loved ones, and children.

And since 2012, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation has sponsored a unique summer camp for those children to help them cope with their loss. It’s like any other summer camp, except everyone in attendance shares one thing in common—a heavy heart.

About 50 youngsters annually visit Colorado Springs to enjoy the outdoors and bond over their life experience of losing a firefighting parent who’s been killed in the line of duty.

Like Matt Blankenship.

In 2013 just four years after joining the Marshfield Fire Department, the 38-year-old father-of-three lost his life after he and two other firefighters got trapped while fighting a blaze at a home in Niangua. The other two firefighters survived, but Blankenship died after suffering burns to 75 percent of his body.

The outpouring of grief and support was incredible, but the grieving and need for support for the Blankenship family never goes away. This is where the camp comes in.

“They still swing from the trees and still have all that fun,” explained Matt’s wife, Amanda. “But they do have that serious time where they come together, talk, and tell their stories.”

“The difference that it makes is that these children learn that they are not alone,” added Beverly Donlon, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Head of Family Programs. “It’s really a lovely thing to see, and they’re encouraged to have fun and open up.”

Matt’s children, Brooke, Megan, and Dylan, have attended the camp in the past, and 17-year-old Dylan is back this year.

“I think it’s been helpful for all the kids,” Amanda said. “Each one grieves differently, so each has a different outcome. But all were positive.”

There is no right way or wrong way to process the loss of a loved one. Everyone has their own way of dealing with the pain. But at the camp, there are experienced counselors and peers who understand what the campers are going through and trying to help.

“There are trigger points that children learn to cope with,” Donlon said. “And instead of crying, they might associate it with something that brings them happiness and joy.”

“You learn that crying is not a crime,” Amanda said. “But we use humor a lot. We joke and remember the funny things that Matt did. Dylan is actually just like his dad, so a lot of times, we just see it in him.”

“The parents get to learn too,” Donlon added. “What signs to look for. The different emotions that are coming out. So it’s good for the parents as well as the campers.”

And as the years go by, these children are learning that life can still be full of happiness while the pain never truly goes away.

“The best analogy I’ve ever heard from one of our family members is that it’s like a big block of ice on your shoulder, and it just kind of starts to melt,” Donlon said. “It never really goes away, but it does melt.”

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