Above: It's the moment everyone waits for — firefighters from multiple firehouses join together for the last few blocks of the run down to Wake Forest Firehouse 1. (Photos by David Leone)
Wake Forest Fire Department to host their own community event
by Carrie C. Causey
WAKE FOREST — After inspiring the nation to host 5K events to recognize area emergency personnel as well as families affected by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Wake Forest will no longer be the site of the annual Tunnel to Towers run.
The Stephen Siller Foundation, established in memory of a New York firefighter who lost his life during the rescue efforts, has restructured the 5K events and opted for a more regional approach. With the change comes the relocation of the run from downtown Wake Forest to Raleigh for the newly named Triangle Tunnel to Towers 5K run/walk slated for Sept. 21.
“Wake Forest gave birth and now it’s like sending the child off to kindergarten — you do it with a tear and a Kleenex and you celebrate the great things that will happen as it grows,” said Lisa Bender, who first voluntarily organized the event for Wake Forest and now holds a paid position at the Siller Foundation. “The name may be different, but that doesn’t change what the firefighters, police and citizens all created. It wouldn’t be this without their efforts and nurturing passion.”
News of the change was difficult for some residents, including Wake Forest Fire Captain David Collins, who had previously served on the board and ran initiatives like a firefighter boot drive to line the streets during the 5K in 2011.
“It’s heartbreaking because we were the little town that could,” Collins said of the nickname the Sillers gave Wake Forest as motivation for others to hold races. “I’m very upset it’s going to Raleigh. It’s not always bigger and better.”
Many residents seemed to agree because Collins received letters from homeowners, businesses, runners and even people who don’t live in Wake Forest about why it should stay in the area.
“I knew how important the run was to me, but I didn’t know how important people really thought the event was,” Collins said.
“Not only do the town’s citizens enthusiastically support the local firefighters, they eagerly support the various sponsors and runners that participate,” wrote Mike Copeland, chair of the Wake Forest Purple Heart Foundation. “I know for a fact that the community’s military veteran population is an avid supporter since many of them know precisely the sacrifices first responders have to make in the course of their duties. As a result, relocating the event will create an unnecessary loss of support from a community that has aspirations to continue to grow this prestigious charity.”
Event-goer Joe Pertz said the event is significant because of its positive lasting impact on others.
“What has stuck with me through the years is the image or our firefighters, stopping some distance from the finish line, waiting for those that were farther back. Locking arms, they finished those last yards together.” he wrote. While it may not be successful monetarily, “it has given our community a reason each year to celebrate those who serve every day and remember those whose lives were lost on Sept. 11, 2001.”
Time of change
Bender, a former teacher at Franklin Academy, was first inspired in 2009 to hold a local run as a lesson to her students. She had heard the story of how Siller ran in full firefighting gear from the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to the Twin Towers, where he died helping others. Each year, thousands follow his footsteps in New York to raise money for charity.
Bender’s mission for creating the first event outside of the Big Apple was involving not only her students, but also the community, about everyday heroes by bringing everyone together to run or walk the course. It included a symbolic portion of the Wake Forest Fire Department running in full gear. Modeled after the town, it was replicated all over the country.
“For our first heroes day, we had a firefighter, law enforcement agent and military person,” Bender said. “The focus is still there. We are not in the classroom anymore, but I hope people will see this as an extraordinary opportunity to celebrate heroes. Moving to a bigger city is a bigger classroom reminding families why we have this huge quality of life.”
“Our mission to honor heroes for what heroes do for us doesn’t stop at the town limit,” she added.
While money from the Wake Forest event was initially given to the Stephen Siller “Let us Do Good” Children’s Foundation and the UNC Jaycee Burn Center, the fundraising efforts were only a small part of the events.
With the new direction the Siller Foundation has taken, the fundraising aspect is a larger portion as they have taken on a new project — building homes for quadriplegic and paraplegic veterans through the Building for America’s Bravest project. All proceeds will go to this fund supporting servicemen and women, many of whom were inspired to enlist after 9/11.
After also helping rescue efforts during Superstorm Sandy, the Siller Foundation decided they needed to better use resources by having bigger races to support their initiatives.
“They identified 20 locations chosen by how successful the run is or because homes built for triple and quadruple amputees in the state are close to the run or in the state,” Bender said. “Wake Forest was one of the smallest runs. The ones in Savannah and Cincinnati were much larger.”
Though there is sentimental value because Wake Forest “set the trend, set the model and embodied the spirit,” Bender said, Raleigh was chosen as a more central location. Plus, in the four years, Wake Forest only raised $50,000 total and they now need to be thinking now in the hundreds of thousands, she said.
“We need to grow in order to build homes,” Bender said of the half-million dollar apiece projects. “All of the money will go to building two homes and not back to the foundation.”
“We saw that doing good requires being capable of providing resources, some monetary,” she added.
Making their own
Because of his disappointment in the move, Collins said Wake Forest will still have their own 5K/walk event Sept. 8, just without being under the foundation umbrella.
“I’m a Wake Forest firefighter in debt to the community and we will not turn our back on the community that gives us everything we’ve got,” he said.
Though, they won’t forget Stephen Siller or any of the 343 firefighters who lost their lives that day, Collins said this year the focus will be on the community and never forgetting.
“We always preached about community and this is home for them. … They sacrifice here every day and put 40,000 people first,” Collins said. “We will run in gear and tell the stories of what firefighters like Stephen did, but he was one of many firefighters.”
As before, fundraising is not going to be a big part of the day. In fact, they aren’t sure where the money would go, but it’s definitely not going to the Wake Forest Fire Department, he said.
The 5K helps build relationships and a foundation if something bad happens in the community, Collins added.
“We don’t want to take the day away from these people.”