Scientologists donate funds to firefighters
By ROBERT FARLEY, Times Staff Writer
CLEARWATER -- A new ceremonial unit of the Clearwater Fire Department will now be fully uniformed, thanks to a $3,300 contribution from the Church of Scientology's Volunteer Ministers.
City manager Bill Horne, who was asked by the fire chief to okay the donation presented to firefighters Thursday, said he thinks this is the first monetary donation Scientologists ever have made to the city.
After researching the question, Church spokesman Ben Shaw said it does appear this gift is the church's first financial contribution to the city; however, Scientologists have volunteered hours of their time working on city projects.
"I think it's another example of the community, the church and the city working together for common goals," Shaw said.
The church came to Clearwater in 1975 and established its international spiritual headquarters here. Through many of the early years, the city and the church were at odds.
Thursday morning, uniformed firefighters stood alongside Scientologists and accepted an oversized check.
The fire department's special new unit, called an Honor Guard, was created in May following the Sept. 11 attacks and at the urging of firefighter Doug Swartz, a former Marine who coordinated an Honor Guard for the Pasco County Fire Department before becoming a Clearwater firefighter last year.
Clearwater's Honor Guard will participate in parades and ceremonial functions such as color guard duties at sporting events and funerals for fallen firefighters.
"We feel we need to pay respect to those injured or killed," Swartz said. "Firefighters have a tight brotherhood."
To get the Honor Guard started, the fire department initially chipped in $6,000. Swartz figured that would be enough; he anticipated no more than five or six firefighters would volunteer for the special detail.
Instead, 11 firefighters joined. The department's money paid for dress hats, pants, shirts, shoes and ascots. But to be fully dressed out, the Honor Guard needed blue, double-breasted jackets with brass buttons.
Enter the Scientologists.
The Church of Scientology's Volunteer Ministers, which sent more than 100 members to ground zero to assist firefighters in their rescue and cleanup efforts, was eager to help, said Sarah Gorgone, the volunteer ministry coordinator for Tampa Bay.
Gorgone said she raised the money in just one week, much of it from members who had gone to New York and came back raving about the efforts of police and firefighters.
"When they heard there was something they could do for their local firefighters, they stepped up immediately," she said.
The Volunteer Ministers learned of the Honor Guard's need from the fire department's union president, John Lee. Gorgone said church staffer, Sophie Bartczak -- who has several times taken doughnuts and flowers to the fire station -- bumped into Lee on the street recently and Lee mentioned the Honor Guard needing some help.
Lee, who could not be reached for comment, has in recent weeks become a high profile player in public debate about the staffing levels in the fire department. Lee and other union members have challenged city spending priorities, arguing the fire department is not adequately staffed.
Horne said the donation should not be viewed as a failure by the city to provide the department enough money. The Honor Guard is an auxiliary activity, he said, and no request was ever made to the city to further fund it.
Members of the Honor Guard serve on a volunteer basis, but they can attend functions while they are on duty. Another firefighter is then paid overtime to fill their position, said Deputy Chief Mark Weinreich.
Already this summer, the Honor Guard has attended a handful of funerals for firefighters, including three in the Orlando area. The unit plans to participate in several upcoming Sept. 11 memorials.
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