By MALLORY GRUBEN
RIDGEFIELD, Wash. — With a smile and an entourage of five yellow-clad firefighters, 4-year-old Mackenzie Thompson toured the Clark County Fair Aug. 6. She petted a steer, ogled turkeys, and rode a pony. She fed treats to the horse of Fair Princess Grace Kemp, and whirled around inside a large pink bear on her very first carnival ride. She and her 7-year-old sister Piper won oversized stuffed animals at one of the game booths.
“Both of the girls are having such a great time,” said their mother Alie Thompson. “And it’s nice to have more eyes, especially because Kenzie is non-verbal.”
Mackenzie was born with Beck-Fahrner Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes developmental delays, intellectual disabilities, and low muscle tone. Last year her parents tried to take her and Piper to the fair, but their visit was cut short because Mackenzie tired too quickly. This year, with the support of Fire Fighters Local 452, the Thompsons spent a full day enjoying all the fairgrounds had to offer.
Local 452 runs Memory Makers, a program that gives medically fragile children and their families a fun, free outing to the county fair. Clark County Fire District 6 Chief Kristan Maurer started the program in 2002 when she was a union member. It now serves up to six families each year.
Memory Makers is a good fit for the union because firefighters and paramedics are trained to provide medical care, said former Memory Makers coordinator Clint Greeley. They can share the responsibility of taking care of a child with special needs, including helping children that use feeding tubes or lifting wheelchairs on and off rides. Greeley said the program helps the family as much as the kids.
“We can say, ‘You just relax and eat your lunch or go on a ride, and we’ll spend time with the kid.’”
Firefighters are public servants, and Memory Makers offers another way for them to serve the community, said Local 452 member Billy Dunlap. Dunlap teared up as he explained the joy of giving kids and families an unforgettable day. Dunlap has volunteered with the program since it started, and he’s known to help with every single shift if there’s openings, Greeley said.
“A lot of people who get the opportunity to do this come back,” Greeley said. “It is a good feeling helping these families out.”
The children’s units at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center and Providence Portland Medical Center refer families to the program. Each family gets free admission to the fair, a wristband for unlimited rides, and money to spend on carnival games, food, and any other special activities the kids want.
“Yesterday, one of the girls wanted a pink cowboy hat, so we bought her a pink cowboy hat,” said Memory Makers coordinator Steve Carter. The donations also covered Mackenzie’s face paint, a full-face Spiderman design she selected herself.
The fairgrounds designates a quiet, shady space near the food court for the families. All the sights, sounds, and smells of a packed fairgrounds can be sensory overload for Mackenzie, so her mother said it was helpful to have a place to take a break.
“We were able to stay longer because of it,” Alie Thompson said. “We went back to the quiet space to rest, and I think that really made it.”
Families are paired with at least two firefighters and one paramedic. Mackenzie and her family became fast friends with the crew of five Local 452 members that escorted them around the fairgrounds from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The group was hard to miss in bright yellow Memory Makers T-shirts, donated by Greeley’s screen printing business.
Piper wrote out a “best friends forever” note for firefighter Lena Richardson to display above her locker in the station. Kenzie — who usually picks her uncle as a favorite — held hands with Mikel Featherston for stability as they walked through the grassy field where the carnival rides were set up. Dunlap cracked jokes with the family.
“You’re going down!” he told Kenzie at the “Balloon Blast” booth, a game where players try to be the first to pop a balloon by shooting water at a target. The 4-year-old broke out in a huge grin. Both lost to Kenzie’s grandmother, who let Kenzie pick the prize.
“This is just an incredible program,” said Mackenzie’s aunt Ashley Schwindt. “It’s great seeing Kenzie having the fun day she deserves.”