STATE COLLEGE — Bob Barlett got to tell LaVar Arrington Friday how the former Penn State and NFL linebacker caused him pain — Barlett is a Pitt fan — with his full-body block of a Panther field goal attempt 23 years ago.
But Barlett — Lewistown’s fire chief — was happy to stand with the two-time All-American in State College, where Arrington was the celebrity guest promoting Nittany MinitMart’s two-month fundraising campaign to support local volunteer fire companies.
In April and May, Nittany MinitMart donates a penny from each gallon of gas sold to local fire companies — which benefits Mifflin County firefighters, who benefit from the Centre County chain’s stores in Lewistown, McVeytown, Belleville and just outside of Mount Union.
This is the third year for the campaign, which last year raised a total of $56,000 across the region, and this year has set the lofty goal of $100,000. Aiding in the effort are vendors who work with the convenience store chain, including Pennsylvania Skill games — with whom Arrington has become affiliated — which has agreed to match parent company Nittany Oil’s donation.
Standing in front of an Alpha Fire Company ladder truck that would cost $1.5 million to replace, Nickie Masullo, of Nittany, used the opportunity to “sound the alarm” on behalf of local fire companies and their volunteers.
“We know that selling hoagies and chicken barbecue dinners are not enough anymore to provide fire companies with the funding they need,” she said.
Arrington, whose support of community servants is rooted in his father’s military career followed by a move to the clergy, said it’s important that these volunteers — many of whom spend thousands of dollars of their own money to serve — get the support they need.
“We all know what they do for their communities,” he said. “They save lives, but they also save memories.”
Arrington admitted surprise to learning that his home state — he grew up in Pittsburgh — has the largest number of volunteer firefighters of any U.S. state. And he stressed that even this $100,000 goal, if met, would place only a dent in the needs of local fire companies.
State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff (R-Bellefonte), whose district includes part of Mifflin County, spoke about the dedication of volunteer firefighters he saw as Centre County coroner, a post he held before being elected to state office. He recalled a New York City firefighter, speaking at Burnham Fire Company’s 100th anniversary in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, being surprised to learn of the extent of volunteerism when it came to first response in the Keystone State.
“He could not believe that men and women got up at 3 o’clock in the morning to run in burning buildings not knowing if they were going to come back,” Benninghoff recalled, echoing events that took place in Lewistown just a few days ago.
“Most people … get a solicitation letter once a year from their fire companies, asking for a simple $25 or $35,” he noted. “Are our families, homes, our properties not worth that?”
He recounted the dedication of volunteers who were the first on the scene, and the last to leave.
“We will be in a terrible place if we don’t support our EMS and firefighters,” he said.
Shawn Kauffman, president of State College’s Alpha Fire Co. and a second-generation volunteer firefighter, pointed out that support of volunteer companies can keep taxes low, as communities served by volunteers are less likely to require paid firefighters.
“It is important to understand that this is critical to the continued operation of our fire companies,” he said.
Arrington said one of the most overlooked aspects of what local firefighters do is that they do it without getting paid — and at risk to themselves.
“I would assume that running into a burning building is a bit more of a challenge than anything I used to do on the football field,” he said. “I am a big believer in supporting communities. Businesses and residents need to help volunteer firefighters who risk their lives to help both their neighbors and complete strangers. We need to make sure they have the resources they need.”