By Rikki King and Marie Damman Herald Writers
MARYSVILLE — As the children filed into the Liberty Elementary gymnasium last week, their eyes widened when they spotted the cafeteria table stacked with new coats.
One at a time, Marysville firefighters took the children by hand and walked them to the table. Each kid’s smile grew bigger.
Firefighter Tobin McGowan helped one boy select a blue coat. McGowan made sure the boy got his name written inside in permanent marker.
“You’re going to be so warm,” McGowan said.
Some kids got coats a little bigger, maybe to last a winter or two. One kid gave a thumbs up.
“Nice!” he said.
The Nov. 14 “Coats For Kids” event was organized in honor of Ray Hancock, a former Marysville firefighter who is living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. The firefighters union Local 3219 raised money to help their colleague.
Hancock and his wife, Lisa Marie, recently decided to donate some of the money for Coats For Kids, a national program they hope will grow locally.
Hancock, 53, of Arlington, worked for the Marysville Fire District for 19 years. Firefighting seemed natural after the U.S. Navy, where he was a diver, he said.
At the firehouse, Hancock was an entertaining buddy, and always high-energy, said Dean Shelton, a Marysville fire captain and the union’s secretary-treasurer.
The crews nicknamed Hancock “Ragin’ Ray.”
He was at the gym one day when he noticed weakness in his left arm. The doctors thought he pinched a nerve, maybe from carrying his firefighter’s air-tank.
Soon after that, he responded to a call where a car was on fire. He couldn’t get his left index finger into his glove, he said. His hand was burned.
More medical tests followed. On April 6, 2010, Hancock was diagnosed with ALS.
He was told he would live three to five more years. He started losing control of his arms and hands. He still can walk, with a brace.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is helping pay for modifications to Hancock’s house and for his medical supplies. For the past three years, the firefighters union also has hosted the Ragin’ Ray Golf Tournament at Gleneagle Golf Course in Arlington. More than 100 people attended this year.
The firefighters wanted Hancock and his wife to use the money to enjoy life, Shelton said.
“Firefighters have a long tradition of helping people in their community as well as helping those in need,” Shelton said. “Here was an opportunity where we could help one of our own.”
It didn’t stop there.
Firefighters from Marysville and Arlington keep showing up at Hancock’s house to offer assistance, Hancock said. They’ve hung his Christmas lights the past few years. This summer, they redid his deck. They do the yard work.
“It’s just one thing after another,” Hancock said. “These guys will come over and they’re literally begging for stuff to do for us.”
The Hancocks went to Mexico. They bought a motor home. They followed the Husky football team to bowl games. They went to Yellowstone, fly-fishing and backpacking.
“Just your typical tourist stuff, and we loved every minute of it,” Hancock said.
Still, he’s had a few bad falls at home. He’s needed aid. His life as a fit firefighter who loved sports and skiing is changing.
“I’m still kind of adjusting to that,” he said. “A lot of times, the people that we are, even if we’re off-duty, you see someone in need, you go over there and help them. The position that I’m in now, I see that, and I can’t go over and help, and that just gets me.”
Hancock and his wife were overwhelmed by how much money was raised. They wanted to find a way to give back. Union leadership suggested Coats for Kids. The couple gave $3,000 for new, American-made coats.
The Hancocks were at Liberty Elementary to help the firefighters pass out coats. They watched and smiled.
“This is great,” Ray Hancock said.
“I love their little faces,” Lisa Marie Hancock said. “Some of them look like they’re in shock, like, ‘Is this really my coat?’ I think the firefighters are as excited as the kids are.”
Liberty has the highest poverty level among students in the Marysville district, said Principal Gloria Henderson. The school often works with local churches and community groups who want to help out. At this year’s open house, a pile of used coats, available for families, were gone within an hour, she said. She loved the idea of the firefighters bringing new coats.
“The kids also could see the community comes together to support them,” she said.
During the event, the firefighters and school leaders took dozens of pictures, with the kids yelling “cheese pizza” for each shot.
“This can change the life of one of these kids,” guidance counselor Randy Vendiola said. “See how happy they are. The coat is not just to keep them warm.”
Each kid also got a plastic firefighter’s hat and a sticker badge. Many tried on a real-life firefighting jacket, struggling under its weight.
Fourth-grader Caden Weier first wanted a green coat but changed his mind in line and went for gray instead. He wants to become a firefighter, he said.
“It looks fun, and you get to go on a lot of missions,” he said.
Fourth-graders Madison Rutt and Gaby Conchas picked coats in purple — their favorite color. Madison said she couldn’t wait to show her mom the coat.
“She likes purple, too,” Madison said. “It’s really comfortable so when I go play in the snow I will be warm.”
Rikki King: 425-339-3449, firstname.lastname@example.org.