It all started with a conversation between Donovan Eckhardt and his friends. When Eckhardt was diagnosed with cancer, his friends and coworkers wanted to know how to help him, especially fellow Renton firefighter Mike Bain.
“He could have said ‘buy me Utah’ and I would have made a heck of a run at it,” Bain said.
Eckhardt didn’t want a fundraiser, he wanted something that would leave a legacy of charity and support for others battling cancer like he did.
“He was the epitome of a selfless, altruistic human being,” Bain said.
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Eckhardt just wanted to help the next person that struggled like he did, Bain said. So Lionhardt was born, a nonprofit that supports first responders as they face terminal illness. The nonprofit steps in to help those that always respond to help the public.
“I think its going to be my son’s legacy, and what a great gift that is,” said Eckhardt’s mother, Karen.
Eckhardt died Aug. 24 at the age of 37, leaving behind a wife and child, with another one on the way. A Gig Harbor resident, he began work at the Renton Fire Department in 2008. That’s where he met Bain, who also lives in the peninsula area.
Lionhardt, inspired by Eckhardt, offers a “softer landing” for those struggling with a terminal diagnosis by helping take care of things that pop up unexpectedly: help with insurance costs, education funds for children, dealing with unions.
It sets up a way for people to send in finances to support someone in need through the avenue of a nonprofit. That way, Lionhardt can step in and build a wheelchair ramp or help with any fees that crop up.
It’s about helping people “pass away with peace,” Bain said.
“Nobody expects to pass away at 37,” he added.
Lionhardt is a young organization, only about three months old. Bain someday sees it eventually stretching nationwide.
The members are not experienced in the ways of nonprofits; in fact, it is managed by four men who are firefighters by trade.
“They’re not marketers, they’re not salespeople, they’re firefighters,” Karen Eckhardt said.
They’re firefighters who know the job is risky and that being young and sick can happen and can be difficult.
“I had no idea that there are tons and tons of young firefighters out there that have questions (about their future),” Bain said.
There are so many men and women who are looking at terminal illness and need help navigating it. It’s not limited to firefighters that Lionhardt gives to; it help first responders of all types. And people really came out to help Lionhardt take care of their friend Eckhardt.
“It’s been eyeopening, to say the least, to see how much the community wants to help,” Bain said.
Bain, along with longtime friend Blake Laidlaw and Renton firefighters Tanner Townsend and Justin Olney, felt like brothers with Eckhardt. Seeing the way the men felt about their friend has been a joy for Karen Eckhardt.
“It’s been a great, great healing for me to see how highly thought of my son is,” she said.
One group that stepped in to help Lionhardt is Gig Harbor’s Morning Rotary. A Rotarian in California, Karen Eckhardt visited the Gig Harbor meeting while in town to help her son two weeks ago. She asked for help mailing out 2,000 Lionhardt letters.
The Rotary stepped in immediately. The community and the way the group stepped in to help a stranger in need showed Karen Eckhardt why her son lived in Gig Harbor.
“That is what community is all about,” she said.
Lionhardt is looking at clients from around the country, but its first client was its champion.
He was the man who cried when he was pinned with his badge. His captain told him later that he had the heart of a lion.
For Bain and others, Eckhardt will always be the heart of Lionhardt.
Lionhardt gear such as mugs, shirts and decals, are available online by donation at www.lionhardt.org.