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Former Markle firefighter's legacy lives on

FIREFIGHTER: A memorial fund in honor of Nate Mills, pictured here, has provided financial reimbursement to 23 Fort Wayne firefighters since 2015. The fund is expanding to include Huntington county’s Mt. Etna, Warren, Markle, and Poneto Volunteer Fire Departments.

by James Ehle - jehle@chronicle-tribune.com

A special memorial fund which has provided more than $3,700 of financial reimbursement to Fort Wayne firefighters is expanding to volunteer fire departments in Huntington.

The Nate Mills Memorial Firefighters’ Fund is expanding its financial assistance for training expenses to include firefighters from Mt. Etna, Warren, Markle, and Poneto Volunteer Fire Departments.

“Volunteer departments have always been special to him and to our family,” said Susan Mills, who established the fund in her son’s name.

Firefighters who attend training classes or programs outside of their department can be eligible for reimbursement up to $100 for one-day training sessions and $200 for two-day training sessions through the memorial fund. This money can be used to cover expenses of classes, travel, lodging, and meals firefighters might acquire when attending training opportunities.

Volunteer firefighters who take EMT school or paramedic school can also receive up to $200 toward costs of schooling.

Nate Mills started his firefighting career with the Markle Volunteer Fire Department right after graduation from Huntington North High School at age 19. He served on the department from 1991 until 2006, when he joined the Fort Wayne Fire Department. During his time as a volunteer firefighter, he trained as an EMT.

During his time with the Fort Wayne Fire Department, Nate Mills continued to attend training classes around the nation with Tom Helkamp, the Captain at the time. The two paid for the training courses on their own dime.

“He wanted to do everything he could to learn about firefighting, the science of it,” Susan Mills said. “He just thought there was no such thing as too much training.”

Nate passed away on March 1, 2015 after a three-year battle with cancer at the age of 41. In lieu of flowers, the Fort Wayne Fire Department donated money to the family under the Nate Mills Fund. The family originally purchased a few books for the department with the fund, but that only took up a small fraction of the money.

“His dad and his wife and I talked it over and decided that it would be a good way to honor his memory to help provide firefighting training for other firefighters,” Susan Mills said. “Keep those guys safe.”

She started reimbursing Fort Wayne firefighters through the fund on her own for the first year but decided to look into turning the fund into a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. Tackling this on her own would cost her 10 percent of the fund in filing expenses in order to become a 501(c)(3).

“I didn’t feel like that was good stewardship of those funds,” she said.

Susan approached the Huntington County Community Foundation (HCCF) after her lawyer, who was also a board member at the foundation, encouraged her to bring the idea there.

“We had a conversation about how we could have a fund here at the Community Foundation,” said HCCF Associate Director Matt Ditzler. “I think our partnership has helped in that expansion to be able to grow it and make it sustainable for the future.”

The fund has provided 23 firefighters with $3,700 in financial assistance in memory of Nate since 2015. HCCF has served as a fiscal sponsor and set up a fundraiser for the program on their website.

Susan Mills, Matt Ditzler, and Tom Helmkamp (now Battalion Chief of the Fort Wayne Fire Department), work closely together to provide reimbursement to firefighters.

“It means the world to me because it’s helping me keep my son’s memory and legacy alive, and I have a real special spot in my heart for firefighters,” she said. “So it’s not only helping me keep his memory alive, but it’s helping me help them to be safe.”

HCCF was able to work with Susan to raise the funds to a specific goal, which opened up possibilities to other departments outside of Fort Wayne.

“It’s been her dream for a couple of years now since she started this project to open it up to more Huntington County-specific fire departments,” Ditzler said. “She got to the point where she felt like that was a possibility through donations to the fund and growth, so now it’s being opened up to more firefighters in our county.”

The fund was going to be extended to the Markle Volunteer Fire Department where Nate got his start, but ties with other Huntington county volunteer fire departments gave Susan the idea to open it up even further.

“He was raised in Majenica, so we always considered Warren his hometown,” she said. “ And then Nathan’s brother-in-law, our daughter’s husband, is assistant chief at Poneto, so of course that department’s really special to us too.”

Susan hopes the amount of money in the fund will decrease as firefighters take advantage of training opportunities but also hopes the amount of money will increase as the community supports the cause through donations.

Information for firefighters who would like to seek reimbursement for training as well as information for community members who would like to contribute to the cause can be found on the HCCF website under Nate Mills Memorial Firefighters’ Fund.