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Fired up for Christmas

Hartford, Conn., Fire Chief Reginald Freeman wants children to enjoy better Christmases than the sad ones he experienced around age 10.

“One of my parents struggled with drug addiction and because of that, we didn’t have much,” Freeman recalls. “Because of that financial hardship, there were back-to-back Christmases that, if it were not for The Salvation Army, my brothers and I wouldn’t have gotten any Christmas gifts. The year prior to that, we literally didn’t get any Christmas gifts.”

Freeman’s family was living in Houston, Texas, when his mother cleaned out the family’s bank account to support her addiction. His father, a non-commissioned officer in the U.S. Air Force, delivered the bad news.

“I remember on Christmas morning, my father sitting me and my two brothers down on the couch and saying, ‘I’m sorry, I couldn’t afford anything for you guys this year.’ I thought he was joking, but he was serious,” Freeman says.

That was tough for Reginald and his brothers to deal with, especially in the ensuing days as they saw their friends outside enjoying all of their new Christmas toys.

“We were eating ice cream cones with no ice cream,” Freeman said. “That was our dinner at the height of my mother’s addiction. There was no food in the house.


Army to the rescue

“It’s been an interesting journey, but thankfully, The Salvation Army was there to take care of us.”

The next year, Reginald and his brothers came home to their apartment complex a few days before Christmas to see two clear plastic bags stuffed with toys outside the door. He probably wasn’t supposed to see that, but a few days later, he and his brothers finally had a Christmas, thanks to The Salvation Army.

“We all had several gifts wrapped up on Christmas morning,” he said. “They were not cheap gifts either. They were gifts that any young boy would admire. I was so happy.”

All these years later, Freeman still remembers that a football, a baseball, and a glove were among the presents.

“It was nice,” he said. “We had plenty of toys and never again had to feel the way we did the year prior.”

Freeman went on to start his firefighting career in Biloxi, Miss. He later was a civilian fire chief in Iraq and also worked for Lockheed Martin before coming to Hartford as fire chief almost five years ago.

Two years ago, Salvation Army officials asked him to join the local advisory board in Hartford.


Boots on the ground

“As an adult, I’ve always made it a point to give back to The Salvation Army any and every time I had an opportunity,” Freeman said.

“I never hesitated when they asked me to serve on the advisory board because of what The Salvation Army has done for me and my family. It’s been truly remarkable to be able to give back and contribute to good things happening in our city.”

Freeman recently helped the Army kick off its #RescueChristmas campaign by challenging other fire departments across Connecticut and the United States to hold a Fill the Boot Drive.

In Hartford, firefighters are holding toy drives, collecting money, standing kettles, and directing people to to donate money.

“I challenge other fire chiefs in the state of Connecticut and across the country that, if you’re looking for something to break the monotony and that COVID fatigue that we’re all experiencing as first responders, and you want to do something and give back, helping The Salvation Army will do just that,” he said.

“Not only will you help your respective communities, but you’ll be able to make a difference for individuals and families.”

Major Carl Avery, divisional secretary in the Southern New England Division, attended a news conference with Freeman and said The Salvation Army had served more than 1.5 million meals to over 110,000 people in Connecticut alone since March.

“Many Connecticut families are struggling this year and are worried about not having toys under the Christmas tree,” Avery said. “The Salvation Army has helped meet this need for many years and will do so again this year.”


Sounding the alarm

Avery explained that COVID-19 would make this year also about “feeding hungry families, helping people stay in their homes, and providing utility assistance to keep the lights on during this unprecedented pandemic.

“With unemployment rates expected to rise, many parents, come Christmastime, will be looking for work. These families need our help,” Avery said.

Freeman said there are close to 400 fire departments in Connecticut alone that could help The Salvation Army.

“In this year of so much challenge, turmoil, uncertainty, and heartbreak, what better way for us as firefighters to give back to our respective communities than by helping The Salvation Army help those who may need just a little bit of help? I know what it feels like to receive that little bit of help,” Freeman said.

“I say, let’s give a helping hand and see if we can make a difference.”

by Robert Mitchell

Watch Fire Chief Reginald Freeman announce the campaign here.