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March 10, 2012

Oakdale VFD barbecue fundraiser canceled after cooler failure, but donations flow

The Oakdale Volunteer Fire Department on Friday was dealing with what fire departments normally deal with - a crisis requiring immediate action. And this time it was the community who came to the rescue.

The Oakdale Volunteer Fire Department on Friday was dealing with what fire departments normally deal with - a crisis requiring immediate action.

But this was no fire or tornado - like the one in November, when the Oakdale volunteers helped dozens of people whose homes had been destroyed.

The refrigerator that held the department's 1,500 pounds of cooked barbecue - ready to be sold Friday at the department's 25th annual fundraiser - quit working in the middle of the night.

The volunteers, for safety reasons, were forced to throw out more than $3,000 worth of meat to be sold, with proceeds paying for a thermal imaging camera that could save somebody in a fire someday.

The barbecue was canceled. The broken coolers were found when the volunteers were periodically checking meat temperature. The decision to cancel hurt - but it was the right one.

"People's health and safety is the most important thing," Oakdale Chief Bill Dunlap said. "We had to throw it all out. This is just devastating, but we will bounce back. We always do."

Devastating, sure, but what happened afterward shows what volunteerism and love of community in York County is about.

People began showing up and donating cash to this fire department that serves thousands of residents south of Rock Hill - even if there were no meat and slaw and beans.

Members of two other volunteer departments that sandwich Oakdale - Bethesda and Lesslie - urged the community to help Oakdale, which usually is the one offering the help.

Tough firefighters like Lesslie Chief Larry McConnell, a 45-year veteran, were reduced to tears over this "calamity."

"This could happen to any of us who holds a barbecue," said McConnell. "These Oakdale volunteers are the best. Great and dedicated. They work hard for no pay, ever.

"If anyone ever thought that they needed a time to donate to a fire department, this is the time right now."

Seeing the need, longtime neighbors brought baked goods to sell instead. One lemon layer cake, whipped up by a granny, was as big as a fire helmet. At nearby Oakdale Elementary School, staffers who taught the firemen decades ago, or the kids of the firemen, sent in the money that would have been used for food.

Ladies showed up with checks, men with cash - all dumped into an old pickle jar marked, "Donations."

A church offered part of its Sunday collection. A North Carolina volunteer fire department heard about it and said a check was in the mail.

Oakdale volunteers were the main command responders for the Nov. 16 tornado south of Rock Hill that damaged 20 homes and left three people dead. The same men who felt helpless Friday morning normally are the ones who help others.

These volunteers who had given up work days this week for the fundraiser, had taken vacations to serve the food, stayed all day Friday to greet anyone who came by and tell them of the cancellation.

That's when people filled that pickle jar with money. One guy pulled his pickup to the side of the road, held out a $20 bill, and said, "You guys are the greatest!" then roared off.

"This day has been a tough one, but when you see people show up and give, that's what we are all about at Oakdale, helping out," said Leon Yard, Oakdale's assistant chief.

One lady wrote a check for $100. Others dropped off $20 bills and more.

The firefighters tried to keep a sense of humor. A mobile sign was put out front, a sign that normally would say "barbecue today," and it was changed to "barbecue canceled." A practical joker added a cardboard sign that read "bake sale & barbecue" - with "barbecue" scribbled out.

And by late afternoon, that donation jar had a bunch of money in it, including from a lady who pulled over, ripped a check out of her checkbook, rubbed her stomach at the loss of the food and said, "You guys are more important than food."

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