Salute our Heroes: Shawnee Heights Fire Chaplain helps others in midst of his own cancer battle

Published: Sep. 21, 2020 at 8:00 PM CDT
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Three years ago John Thacker was approached with the opportunity to serve as chaplain for the Shawnee Heights Fire District.

“One of the people who is a member of my church is also a firefighter there and they hadn’t had a chaplain in a couple of years and he saw a need for this group of people to be able to have somebody to talk to the way that I had talked to him as his pastor,” he said.

Around the department he’s known as “Chappy," often bringing food for the firefighters.

Thacker calls his work a ‘ministry of presence’ and helps them through any personal struggles or work-related trauma.

“I think we were at 1,400 something calls last year and over 900 calls this year. All those calls add up,” he said.

Jessica Shrewsbury, a Lieutenant with Shawnee Heights Fire said, “We go through a lot, we see a lot and we deal with a lot in the career that we have and it’s nice to know that there’s someone that’s always there, that’s always willing to listen and be there for us when we’re struggling.”

Thacker also serves the community, by responding to those hard calls.

Shawnee Heights Fire Chief, Rick Deibert said, “If we have a structure fire and the family needs help, he contacts the Red Cross and takes a lot of load off the administration.”

Lt. Chris Davenport echoed those remarks saying, “He shows up on scene and talks to the families because some of us just kind of lose the compassion side because we deal with things so much. You got him to show up and be that compassionate one to help take the pressure off of us, so we can do our job.”

Thacker said that has helped him connect with the department on a deeper level.

“At the end of the day they just need somebody here who knows what they go through," he continued saying, "So, because I respond to the calls and see what they see, it gives me a rare opportunity to minister to people.”

Several months ago, Thacker began facing his own struggles.

He said, “I have cancer in my eye, they’ve told me that it’s very rare and aggressive.”

When Thacker received the news, he said the department was the first to step up.

Deibert said,“I don’t know how he does it...things he’s going to be going through in the near future.”

Shrewsbury added, “We really want to be there for him and help him when he needs us, because he’s helped us so much.”

Thacker admits the unknown is scary, but said he will lean on his faith and fire family.

“My faith is strong and that gets me through. Doesn’t mean that I don’t have bad days and days where I want to think about it because I’m human, but at the end of the day it’s going to be okay," he added.

Chief Deibert said they are working on a couple fundraisers to help Thacker with medical expenses.

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