By KEITH ERICKSON, Staff writer
Copyright Coeur d’Alene Press (2001)
HAUSER – Gary Mobbs has spent the past 23 years unselfishly helping the victims of structure fires automobile accidents and other unexpected disasters. The volunteer firefighter, a captain with the Hauser Lake Fire Department, has seen more than his share of tragedy. But nothing compares with the loss he experienced 16 years ago. Mobbs endured, without doubt, a father’s worst nightmare.
After a courageous battle with cancer, his little girl, Shalena, died in 1985. Mobbs still sheds tears when he recalls the final anguishing days of his daughter’s life as she slowly succumbed to cancer and the potent doses of chemotherapy and radiation used to rid her little body of the horrific disease.
Even though Shalena lost her battle, her name lives on with an Annual Breakfast With Santa at the Hauser Lake volunteer fire station. Later this month, a 6-year-old Post Falls boy with cancer will benefit from the annual fund-raiser. Like 15 other children before him, Brett will receive thousands of dollars to help pay surging medical bills. Mobbs and the department’s 17 volunteers spend months preparing for the annual breakfast, which this year is expected to attract more than 1,000 people.
When he’s not preparing for the breakfast fund-raiser, Mobbs is busy ordering equipment for the fire station, training, testing various firefighting apparatuses and spending up to three nights a week at the fire station doing various officers’ duties.
And that’s in his “spare” time. Mobbs has a full-time job as a plant supervisor with a chemical fertilizer operation in State Line, a job he’s held for 22 years. But his heart will always be with the department.
“I’m really proud of this department, because I feel that I’m a piece of this puzzle that’s helped get it where it’s at,” he said. His later father and brother also were volunteers with the department. “It’s definitely not by myself, there’s a group of extremely dedicated individuals that put a lot of time in here.”
Shalena must have been a very special little girl. What was she like?
Of course, she was an angel to me. Blond hair, blue eyes, very intelligent. At two-years-old, she was talking in full sentences. I’m really honored for this breakfast to continue in her name. I got a phone call from California a couple weeks ago and they are starting a Shalena’s Breakfast With Santa Clause in Lemoore, Calif. and will be sponsoring a little girl with leukemia. My goal is to hopefully to see this breakfast go across the nation. I had some real good encouragement last year from some e-mails that I received from the East Coast. We’re starting a site on the Hauser Lake Fire Department’s Internet site to explain our breakfast.
How did you come up with the idea to start an annual Breakfast in Shalena’s memory?
Actually, I wasn’t involved with the very first one. Matter of fact, I didn’t know anything about it until it happened. Firefighters at that time and friends knew what kind of stress we were in financially so they threw a breakfast together. Maybe 100 people showed up at the first one. The next year came along and I was involved at that time and we realized what an awesome idea it was. So we thought, why don’t we start doing (an annual breakfast) for every family and it started snow-balling from there.
The children who benefit from Breakfast With Santa have been diagnosed with serious, sometimes terminal diseases. Are these courageous children and their families able to attend the breakfasts?
It all depends on where the child is in his or her treatment. Some of the kids are able to come. We had a little girl from Lewiston a few years ago named Brittany. We got to be really close friends with that family. I try, unfortunately, not to get too close to the families because I have to re-live my experiences. (Wiping his eyes) it strikes a nerve. Brittany has been fine. She’s been cancer free for a couple years. Not all of our kids have made it. Some of them have. There’s been three or four of them who come back to our breakfasts every year and they’re so grateful. Most of the time I have to convince them (families) this is a good thing to be involved in. We all have our pride, but I haven’t had a family yet that I couldn’t talk into it because I’ve been there, done that. I know what they’re feeling.
Does make it easier on the families that you are able to share your experiences?
Yes. Here comes the emotional part. It was so hard to sit there, lie there beside Shalena in bed at Deaconess (Medical Center) while she was barfing her guts out until there was nothing left. Seeing all the stuff she went through was really hard. Saying goodbye, nothing ever gets as hard as that…
What is your role in the breakfast?
It’s kind of changed in the past couple years. I used to spend more time in the kitchen, making sure the system was running. Now I spend more time in front. But I have to be real careful because I know so many people …people want to stop and talk. Sometimes I’ll come out and see if anybody needs something and 20 minutes later I get back in the kitchen and they say, Oh where the hell have you been? (laughs).
What goes into the preparation?
It started two months ago. Dividing responsibilities, I don’t think anybody’s ever said no to helping out. This event has gotten so big, we’ve been able to save and buy our own grills, we own five now. We used to have to go out and borrow them. So we’re slowly purchasing our own stuff. We borrow tables from the Post Falls Fire Department and Lions Club. So preparing, everybody’s got their own jobs.
This community event has grown from about 100 people in the first year to over 1,000. What do you attribute the success to?
I think word of mouth helps a lot. Media involvement has helped a lot, I’ve contacted 30 radio, TV and newspapers and all of them have been positive and that helps. A lot of people know about our breakfast and are willing to come out and spend a Sunday morning out here. Before church, after church, instead of church. Some people are here just to have breakfast. Some are here to help a family whose child has cancer. I got an e-mail last year from somebody who said we don’t charge enough. We charge $3 per plate or $10 per family. It’s been the same for 15 years. I explain that the people who can afford it usually donate a little bit more, the ones that can’t don’t. We’ve had $100 plates. But we don’t want to focus that we’re making money, money, money. That’s not what this is about. It’s a community event, everybody from Hauser Lake ends up being here. The people that don’t have a lot of money can feel involved to.
Even though Shalena lost her battle with cancer, her name lives on with this breakfast. What do you enjoy most about helping other children in her memory?
Their eyes. Looking into their eyes. (Sighs) You struck another nerve. Especially … I see Brittany a lot, at least three times a year. Seeing her live on; seeing her smile; seeing her run around; seeing her being ornery. I like to look into kids’ eyes and see happiness, getting back to that warm and fuzzy feeling. I like to see these kids when they’re able to come back. Unfortunately, we lose some of them. There’s four or five of them that come back and it’s a warm feeling inside to see that some of them have made it.
Christmas is a time for family, faith and joy. How are these aspects exemplified at Breakfast With Santa?
People get so caught up in presents and stuff, but you’ve got to remember what the day is all about. I think it brings the community together and you get to see the kids sit on Santa’s lap, seeing happy thoughts and smiles.
Each year, I see all these volunteer Hauser Lake firefighters frying bacon, flipping pancakes, serving biscuits and gravy and pouring coffee. What motivates them?
I think the cause motivates us. What are we really doing here? We’re helping somebody. In our case, sometimes we’re helping a whole family. And I just think people deep down in their hearts are givers.
This is the 16th year you’ve held Breakfast With Santa. Do you see any end in sight?
On the contrary, I really see us expanding. I woke up at 5:30 this morning thinking OK, how can we get more people. How can we expand this thing. When I saw the interest on the Internet, it was like turning the light switch on. Let’s get out there and reach people. We’ve received donations from California, $100 from people we don’t even know. They just hear about the Breakfast With Santa Claus and donate to it. They mail us a check with a little note to it. One said, “You guys are doing an awesome job, praise the Lord for people like you.” But people focus it toward me, which bothers me a little bit because I’m one person out of 17 firemen and an auxiliary of seven women who make this a success. I’m only one piece of this puzzle. I’m the vocal piece, but I like to see the people look at the department as a whole. I would love to see this thing starting in fire departments across the United States.