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Downers Grove firefighter starts national tour supporting cancer victims

Published: Monday, July 28, 2014 10:32 a.m. CDT
(Tarah Thorne –
Joel Mains (left) and Bryan Vrbenec, of the Downers Grove Fire Department, volunteer with Pink Heals. Vrbenec said the most rewarding part of each home visit is seeing how surprised people are when the pink fire engines show up. Pink Heals supports mostly women cancer patients in need of cheer.

BARRINGTON – As often as emergency vehicles come and go from Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington, pink ones are a rare sight.

The national Pink Heals Tour stopped by the hospital July 9 to spread cancer support awareness. Pink Heals started in 2007 as a group of current and retired firefighter-paramedics who want to help people battling cancer – with a focus on women.

Pink fire trucks and decked-out volunteers travel across America to fundraise, educate others and most frequently, visit women who are going through a tough time. The public safety theme is to show Pink Heals "puts people first, rather than using money raised to sustain a corporate charity," according to the group's website.

Chicago chapter founder Joel Mains, of the Downers Grove Fire Department, said the national tour began mid-June and will go until mid-November. Volunteers travel as far as Kansas, Texas, Rhode Island and Florida, Mains said.

Mains said four to six people typically work two weeks at a time – traveling, selling T-shirts, making surprise home visits and partnering with other organizations such as Good Shepherd.

At the hospital, the group was suiting up in pink apparel to give a teddy bear to a 10-year-old who was undergoing brain surgery. They hadn't known about the patient before arriving at the event that day, Mains said.

"Our crew stopped to fill up for gas and the attendant told us about their family member in the hospital," Mains said. "We knew we had to do something."

Heidi Wiltse, a women's health navigator at the hospital, stood by the trucks to hand out sunscreen.

"Skin protection is cancer prevention," Wiltse said, explaining that the event wasn't about a certain cancer so much as it was about promoting overall wellness.

The trucks, named Ann Marie, Leslie and Elaine, could easily be seen from the street.

Good Shepherd spokeswoman Lisa O'Neil said the annual event celebrates women and "raises awareness in a very visual way."

Mains established the Chicago area chapter after participating in a Mother's Day tour with Pink Heals on the west coast about five years ago. His first-ever home visit fueled his passion, Mains said.

"We surprised a woman in Bakersfield, California, with our pink turnout gear and had the trucks going with lights and sirens," Mains said. "It was the coolest thing ever. We all gave her a big hug."

All trucks are donated or purchased cheap. Any funds raised go right back to the local community, Mains said, explaining the group only needs to take out their "own" money for fuel and hotel stays.

April Neihengen of McHenry was visiting the event with her sons who toured the engines and signed the names of anyone they knew battling cancer. The surface of each engine was covered with women's names in black ink.

"It's great to know there are people who are so supportive," Neihengen said.

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