Beverly man takes pains to help out burn victims
BY GINGER BRASHINGER Correspondent January 2, 2013 1:18PM
Tom Taff in his home office with many awards he has been given for his work with burn camps in Chicago, Illinois, Monday, December 10, 2012. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun Times Media
Updated: January 9, 2013 12:20PM
Tom Taff did not fall through the stairwell of a burning building all those years ago in vain.
The awards on the desk and walls of his home office attest to that.
Taff, 53, of Chicago’s Beverly community, recently added another to the many honors. The Illinois Fire Safety Alliance presented Taff with its Special Recognition Award for the work he has done over the past 15 years on behalf of young burn survivors at “Camp I Am Me” in McHenry County.
Another award, dear to his heart because of its connection to his Beverly neighborhood, the “Venerable Mary Potter Humanitarian Award” he received in 2011 from Little Company of Mary Hospital, reflects Taff’s deep commitment to making a difference in the lives of young burn survivors.
Taff said he doesn’t seek the recognition, but he knows it benefits the cause.
“I never did it for these awards,” he said. “I feel it raises awareness for the camp.
“Truthfully, the smiles on the kids’ faces are reward enough for us,” Taff said.
His personal awareness about burn survival was heightened when Taff suffered burns in 1990 as a rookie firefighter with the Chicago Fire Department. Taff fell 30 feet through the stairwell of a burning building, suffering second- and third-degree burns to his ears, neck and legs in addition to back and lower-body injuries.
During his two-week stay in a hospital burn unit, Taff was approached by nurses who asked him to speak to two young boys.
“Their legs were burnt like mine were, and they didn’t want to walk,” Taff said. “The new skin needs to be stretched, but it feels like you’re tearing it apart when you’re walking.”
The boys agreed to go to therapy with Taff.
“I held their hands in the therapy room and all three of us walked together,” Taff said. “I tell people those kids were looking up to me for courage, but I actually got courage from them because it hurt. Believe me, it does hurt.”
Despite his success with the children, Taff was reluctant to grant the nurses’ second request that he become a counselor at the burn survivor camp, then known as “Burn Camp.”
Taff said no, but the experience was indelibly a part of him.
Back on the job and on the field as one of the players on a Chicago Fire Department softball team, Taff was further exposed to the camp while playing for their fundraisers.
Taff said as he sensed his athletic days were coming to an end in 1997 because of the toll his injuries had taken, he started his own fundraiser, “Bucks for Burn Camp.”
A second unfortunate on-the-job accident proved to be life-changing for Taff, eventually resulting in a double hip replacement.
“The doctors told me my career was over,” Taff said. “The good thing about it was I was introduced to Burn Camp, and I started doing the fundraisers.”
“Bucks for Burn Camp” has raised $1.6 million to date.
Taff is quick to say that his family has everything to do with the success of the event. He said his wife of 10 years, Jen, is involved in every aspect of the fundraiser, and their five children all have been actively involved.
David Taff, 20, now is a U.S. Marine, and Michael, 19, is a student at the University of Northern Iowa, but Taff said they helped out with the fundraising as youngsters.
Taff said the involvement of his three daughters, Madison, 9, and twins Megan and Tegan, 7, demonstrates just how much “a part of our life” the fundraising and the camp have become for the family.
Taff said his daughters “will take any chance they get” to raise money for the camp, whether it’s making and selling lemonade in the neighborhood or selling the Taff family’s landscaping rocks when the lemonade runs out.
“How can I get mad? They’re following in their dad’s footsteps,” Taff said.
Taff said special moments at the camp remind him that “we actually did give some help.”
“Look at the children’s lives we’ve changed,” he said.
Taff said because the Chicago Fire Department has added Camp I Am Me to its “Fill the Boot” fundraising campaign, he can focus more on his goal of raising fire safety awareness than on raising money.
Taff’s career as the victim assistance program director with 1-800-BOARD UP, a division of J.C. Restoration, brings his humanitarian efforts into every part of his life.
As for the daily pain Taff suffers from injuries that ended his 16-year firefighting career, Taff said he thinks it’s a pretty good trade-off.
Jen Taff agrees.
“I think it all happened for a reason,” she said.
For more information, visit bucksforburncamp.org.