OAKLAND -- For years, Oakland firefighters have visited sick and injured youngsters at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland, bringing gifts and toys and lifting the child's spirits and their own.
Now, Oakland Firefighters Random Acts, a nonprofit group, has made a permanent donation -- a firefighter-themed playground in the backyard of a house used by the families of hospitalized children. It opened in October and the project will be highlighted at a fundraiser later this month.
"We wanted to do something really, really special," said Larry Hendricks, the group's president.
Volunteers -- including current and retired firefighters and other community residents -- came together for more than 1,000 hours of planning and building, creating an exact scale replica of nearby Oakland Fire Station No 8. in North Oakland.
Inside the fire station, children can push buttons to hear the sounds of a firehouse, see displays of firefighter gear, and see a cartoon mural depicting a firefighter extinguishing flames from a fire-breathing dragon. The project cost $50,000, raised through donations.
The group's annual fundraising dinner and dance is coming up on April 26. This year, organizers hope to draw at least 300 people and raise $60,000 to $70,000.
"We work very hard to pull this off," said Hendricks, who retired from the Oakland Fire Department two years ago after 30 years on the job.
The 16-bedroom Children's Hospital Family House, a "home away from home." is available to families who live at least 70 miles away from the hospital and need a place to stay while their child undergoes treatment. At the Dover Street facility, residents share a common living room, play room, kitchen, laundry room, and now the playground, which will mainly be used by siblings of sick children.
"The firehouse and the playground at our family house are really terrific," said hospital spokeswoman Melinda Krigel. "The Random Acts folks as well as Oakland firefighters were here daily for 2 to 3 months.
"No matter how hot it got, they were working away. Their commitment was truly incredible."
Hendricks said the playground is the group's largest donation to children at the hospital but certainly not the first. For years, crews have delivered wheelchairs, portable DVD players and video game systems. They've also helped organize helicopter rides and visits to fire stations.
The visits are often cathartic for the men and women of the Oakland Fire Department, Hendricks said.
"We take the (firefighters) through the hospital wards every few months, and when (they) come out, it can be quite emotional," he said.
Sometimes the visits are to a child who was injured during a fire or medical call while others are orchestrated by a social worker. Firefighters, who bring gifts to children they interact with on 911 calls, last year delivered 1,300 presents to children around Oakland.
"(The firefighters) never turn down the kids," said Hendricks.
The firehouse playground is dedicated to two Station 8 firefighters who died in the same week in 2007.
Angelo Primas, 54, had recently retired after 23 years, when he died in his sleep. Kevin Reed, 47, was riding an exercise bike at an Oakland gym when he collapsed and later died.
"They both had a history of visiting the children there," Hendricks said.
Hendricks said other projects are underway, but every dollar raised by the group helps them do more.
"These are the funds that we use throughout the year," he said. "This is what we depend on that helps us give back to the community."
Oakland Firefighters Random Acts will host their 13th annual fundraising dinner and dance April 26 at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension in Oakland. The program will include live and silent auctions, drawings, firefighter bartenders, dinner, Fentons ice cream, a DJ and dancing until midnight. For more information and to purchase tickets, call, 510-465-8422 or go to www.ofrandomacts.org.