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Controversial Facebook post boosts firefighter Christmas donations


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NAPLES, Uintah County — The small fire station in Naples looks like any other in Utah.

Soot-stained turnout gear and helmets hang in lockers along one wall, while the department's large red and white trucks wait nearby, ready for the next call.

But every December, those trucks are pulled outside and the 20 firefighters who make up the all-volunteer department transform the station into Santa's Workshop.

"This is probably the favorite thing we do all year," Naples Fire Chief Brett Reynolds said. "It's just grown to where I think we've helped probably over 500 kids in the last three years."

Last Christmas, firefighters helped about 130 Uintah County kids in need. They wanted to increase that number for 2013. So, on Thursday, a department representative approached Wal-Mart for permission to once again stand outside its Vernal store the day after Black Friday to solicit donations in a "Fill the Boot" drive.

"The gentleman that was helping us collect (donations) went down to see if we could do it," Reynolds said. "Unfortunately he left feeling like we were not going to be able to fill the boot.

"It kind of put us in a panic," the chief added. "Other businesses donate, but that's 30 percent to 40 percent of our funding."

Late Thursday night, someone used the fire department's Facebook page to blast Wal-Mart for the apparent rejection.

By Friday, the fiery Facebook post had been shared hundreds of times and was being met largely with outrage. That led to a meeting between Reynolds and Wal-Mart managers in Vernal, where apologies were exchanged and accepted, and the misunderstanding was cleared up.

However, before the meeting even took place, other Vernal merchants such as Smith's, Kmart and Davis Food and Drug called firefighters to offer help.

"A local grocery store owner offered to match up to $1,000 of anything we got," Reynolds said.

The department also received a sizable donation from Wal-Mart after Friday's meeting and approval to solicit donations outside the store, the fire chief said.

All the extra help means Reynolds and his firefighters — or rather his elves — should be able to make Christmas brighter this year for more kids in need.

"We're looking forward to standing out in the cold and raising some money for the kids," Reynolds said.

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Geoff Liesik

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