Minn. foundation expands to give grants to first responders, military

The Front Line Foundation is filling in gaps in funding to support training and equipment for Minnesota first responders and the families of those killed in the line of duty


Kelly Smith
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

A local foundation is filling in gaps in funding to support training and equipment for Minnesota first responders and the families of those killed in the line of duty.

The Front Line Foundation, formerly Friends of SWAT Minnesota, renamed and expanded in 2018 to provide grants not just to SWAT officers but to everyone from emergency medical personnel to military members.

Beginning this year, the all-volunteer foundation is increasing fundraising efforts with plans to start funding active shooter trainings for local schools and churches. The foundation also plans to expand the amount of grants for law enforcement training, equipment and death benefits to families, starting with those of three National Guard soldiers killed in a helicopter crash in Stearns County in December.

"It's not political; it's just a human issue," said Brent Rohlik, a financial adviser who is on the board and co-founded the expanded foundation. "These people go into danger to help us out."

The foundation is launching two new fundraising events this year and receiving donations during the Minnesota Wild's Emergency Medical Personnel Night Jan. 16, where paramedic Josh Duda, the survivor of a medical helicopter crash last summer in Brainerd, will drop the ceremonial puck.

The foundation, which started as Friends of SWAT in 2015, drew in nearly $80,000 in 2018, according to tax forms filed in 2019, spending about $60,000 on grants.

In 2019, a bulk of grants went in undisclosed amounts to six families, Rohlik said, adding that the foundation aims to increase revenue to put more money into trainings and equipment. He said donations in 2019 ranged from $20,000 to $60,000 per department, such as funding helmets for Anoka County's SWAT team.

"A lot of times, it's not in the budget to get new equipment but it's desperately needed," he said. "Anybody would want their police department to have the latest and greatest equipment."

The grants to families aren't meant to last long-term but rather are a stopgap measure to help them before death benefits take effect, said Anoka County Sheriff James Stuart, who is also on the foundation's board. Plus, he added, the foundation provides emotional support to families.

"They know they're not standing alone," Stuart added. "It's scary enough worrying what your life is going to be without your loved one."

The families of North Memorial Medical Center pilot Tim McDonald, 44, of Danbury, Wis., and nurse Deb Schott, 58, from Biscay, Minn., who died in the helicopter crash, received grants last year.

The foundation also gave grants to the families of Joseph Gomm, 45, a Stillwater corrections officer killed in 2018 by an inmate, and Joe Parise, 37, an Oak Park Heights corrections officer who died in 2018 from a medical emergency after helping a colleague who was being attacked by an inmate, an incident later ruled a homicide.

Grants also went to the families of Eugene Wynn, 43, a state Department of Natural Resources conservation officer who drowned responding to a report of something suspicious floating in a lake near Pine City, and Red Lake Nation Conservation Officer Shannon Lee "Opie" Barron, 48, who died of a heart attack after answering a poaching call.

Many communities have launched fundraisers to help survivors such as a memorial fund for the National Guard soldiers killed when their Black Hawk helicopter crashed in a Stearns County farm field — Chief Warrant Officer 2 Charles P. Nord, 30, of Perham; Chief Warrant Officer 2 James A. Rogers Jr., 28, of Winsted; and Sgt. Kort M. Plantenberg, 28, of Avon. Several other groups also give out grants for military families and for trainings and equipment beyond what law enforcement agencies receive in public funding.

But there's still a need for more financial and emotional support for families and first responders, said Cyrea Lynch of Eden Prairie, who works for an ambulance company and coordinates the foundation's events.

"You can hear the need, the gap, the emotional support that having a foundation like this fills," said Lynch, whose husband is a firefighter.

Besides fundraising events, the foundation also receives donations on its website and from police unions and departments through paid memberships. The foundation said revenue has increased from about $5,000 in 2015, as reported on its tax forms, to $450,000 in pledged funding for family death benefits this month alone.

"It's something that we just expect is going to be there. But they do their jobs because it's their jobs," Lynch said. "They save our lives each and every day."

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