The event was a benefit for Willie West – a 20-year veteran firefighter of the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD) – in his battle against cancer. The guest of honor was ensconced in a recliner in the center of the room after arriving in a procession that briefly alarmed a few far East County residents.
Dozens of Warrior Watch motorcyclists, private vehicles, fire engines, ambulances and police cars joined the caravan as it wound its way, sirens blaring, from West’s Antioch home past ECCFPD stations in Oakley, Knightsen, Discovery Bay and Brentwood where West has worked.
A complete surprise to West, the event was an outpouring of support from residents and co-workers from the ECCFPD and surrounding emergency services departments. Battalion Chief Brian Helmick led a team of 50 volunteers who helped put it on. Another 50 individuals and businesses made donations or provided raffle prizes.
“Willie has served the community for 20-plus years, and we’re taking one night to honor him and his family,” said Helmick. “We want him to know we stand by him as he and his family go through this trial. We’ll be here for the long run – this evening is just a small token.”
The event raised more than $14,000 to help offset some of West’s medical expenses and put toward his daughter’s education. More than $2,000 of the total was raised by ECCFPD Director Bob Kinney – also known on Bethel Island as Santa Claus – who raffled off the right to shave his snowy-white whiskers at $5 per ticket.
Beautician Dana Pedrotti of Eyeland Beauty got the honors of removing Kenny’s beard.
“My kids sit on his lap every Christmas, so I’m sad to see (the beard) go,” said Pedrotti, adding that she left the little ones home last weekend to avoid potential trauma. “Some of them still believe, so I didn’t bring them. I don’t want them to see this.” (Kenny assured everyone that the beard would be back in time for the holidays.)
West’s colleagues presented him with a fire axe mounted on an oak plaque inscribed with his fire engineer’s badge. In addition to a challenge coin from the Warriors Watch and a number of standing ovations, West also got a handshake from Oakland Raiders great Art Thoms, who conducted a silent auction of sports memorabilia that helped increase the total.
Between sets by longtime local favorite band Inside-Outside and local singer/songwriter Lauren Atlas, attendees enjoyed the company of friends and neighbors united for a common cause.
“This is the way they used to do things,” said resident Clyde Allen. “People just being good to each other. Nowadays, people want to join in, but they’re on Highway 4 and don’t have the time. It’s heartwarming that so many could make it tonight.”
Fire Chief Hugh Henderson told the gathering that when the idea for a West fundraiser first came up, the expectations were set low.
“We thought 40 or 50 people would come,” Henderson said. “Well, over 400 tickets have been sold. Willie is one of those guys who quietly got his work done and never really asked for a lot. It means a lot to be able to help someone like that.”
And while the event will assist West and his family with some much-needed cash, it also benefited those who put it on by countering stress over their colleague’s illness and the ECCFPD’s current funding woes.
“This gives them a way to collect that energy and get it focused into something good for a brother firefighter instead of dwelling on both his illness and the district’s troubles,” Henderson said.
Escorted to the stage by an honor guard, West made his way past the hundreds of applauding people, which included dozens of firefighters called to the front of the room for a special salute.
“I’m overwhelmed,” said West, his voice choked with emotion. “This really is a brotherhood, all right.”
As for his health, West said he’s still fully engaged in his struggle against the disease. “I’m in pain, but I’m fighting it,” he said.