Andrew Dys

Hickory Grove fundraiser a chance to give back to firefighters who give so much

Matt Gilfillan is a third-generation firefighter. He is shown at his job at the York Fire Department.
Matt Gilfillan is a third-generation firefighter. He is shown at his job at the York Fire Department.

There is a once-a-year-fundraiser in tiny Hickory Grove in western York County, where beef hash and barbecue will be sold to pay for the volunteer fire department’s service to the community. There will be a tractor show and bake sale and sausage biscuits and yard sales. People will bring their lawn chairs and even their old tractors and talk and laugh.

But Saturday’s fundraiser is not what matters most. What matters most are the humble volunteers who serve others through the fire department.

None want recognition. They run away from safety and toward danger. Matt Gilfillan has done it all his life. And he did it March 23, in Newport, between York and Clover.

Gilfillan, on that day a York fireman, knelt down. Two friends were on the ground, prompting the call, “firefighters down.” Gilfillan, like all the emergency workers that awful afternoon, did not flinch. A lifetime of firefighting and 25 years of training, kicked in.

Gilfillan did what trained emergency responders do – they render aid. You could see him in the photos taken at the scene that day, turnout coat off, doing all that had to be done over a firefighter who was hurt.

“That day was a day where you are really preparing yourself for a call,” Gilfillan said. “And then you hear the call of someone being down, and you know that it’s one of your brothers you work side-by-side with.

“You really have to put your training to work to make sure that they are safe and taken care of.”

No more details. That is between brothers in fire.

He will only say that the help he gave that day is the same he does for anyone down at any call when the pager goes off and the guts churn and the danger is there and he goes anyway. He gave his best.

“It’s a bad feeling in your gut,” is all Gilfillan will say about March 23 and about his friends and coworkers, firefighters in a most exclusive fraternity that needs no hazing like all these college fraternities in the news, because the job, the work, is the literal trial by fire.

Gilfillan knows Joseph Volk and Rich Diamanti. He works with them at the Newport Fire Department. Gilfillan is a full-time paid firefighter for the city of York, a part-time paid firefighter for Newport, and assistant chief at the all-volunteer Hickory Grove Fire Department. He is also a paid EMT in Cherokee County. The rumor is he has seen his wife in the past month, but nobody knows for sure.

“I tell people I had two car seats when I was a baby – one in the fire truck and the other in the rescue truck,” Gilfillan said. “I was born into this. It has always been in my family. When that pager goes off, you know you are going to make a difference for somebody.”

Gilfillan started volunteering with the Hickory Grove department when he was 12. His younger brother and a first cousin also volunteer there. One works full-time as a firefighter in Charlotte. His father, Kenny Gilfillan, is Hickory Grove’s longtime fire chief.

His late grandfather, Leon Bratton, founded the Hickory Grove department in the Bratton service station in 1952. His parents organized the Hickory Grove rescue squad, and his mother, Anne Gilfillan, has been involved with the department for 60 years.

For Saturday’s fundraiser, the Gilfillans cook and bake and serve. All the volunteers and their families do.

“It is what we do and who we are,” Anne Gilfillan said. “There is a saying that the fire service, volunteering for others, is in the blood, because it is true.”

When Anne Gilfillan heard that firefighters were down March 23, she knew her son was on shift in York and had responded. For the thousandth time in her life, her guts churned. She finally found out that it was Volk and Diamanti down, but that did not stop the worry. These are people she knows and has served with and yes, loves.

Anne Gilfillan immediately set out for the hospital in Rock Hill, telling Volk before surgery that she was there, and that he was loved. She has visited both Volk and Diamanti since, baking them pecan pies – the same kind of pie she bakes to sell at Saturday’s fundraiser so her husband, her two sons and nephew can risk their lives for strangers every day and night.

“That is what we do,” she said.

During and after the Newport fire, other volunteer departments covered calls for help to the York Fire Department because Matt Gilfillan and several others were at the Newport scene. In a long chain around the county, other volunteer departments did the same, filling in for their neighbor departments so that no community was without coverage.

After the fire was out, Gilfillan and the others from York who were on paid shift went back to the York station. They worked until 8 a.m., finishing a 24-hour shift. Nobody complained.

On his two off days, he volunteered in Hickory Grove, then he worked Friday, March 27, in Newport. This week it repeats again, and will again next week, and for the rest of his life.

Gilfillan refuses to say he is special, that he is different from anyone else who puts on the turnout gear and works or volunteers – or both – for a fire department. He will tell you his peers are greater than he is. He was named firefighter of the year in 2007 for saving a woman who was having a heart attack, but you’d never hear about it from him.

“The community supports us, and we serve the community,” Gilfillan said. “It is that simple.”

That is why Saturday’s fundraiser in Hickory Grove is so important. For these people who do it – a few paid, but mostly volunteers and many who do both. They always face danger, and sometimes they get hurt.

And they do it for everybody else – sometimes even the guys they work with.

Andrew Dys •  803-329-4065 •

Want to go?

The Hickory Grove Volunteer Fire Department’s annual fundraiser is 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Hickory Grove ball field, 5800 Wylie Ave. There is a tractor show, yard sales and food sales all day. Admission is free.

Barbecue is $8 per pint; hash is $8 a pint and $16 a quart. Other food will be for sale all day.

All proceeds will go to help pay down the fire department’s debt on its second station, which serves rural residents.