Raise your hand if a first grade field trip to the fire station made an impression on you. Maybe you went home and told your parents you knew what you wanted to be when you grew up. Raise your hand if you followed through on that decision.
Billy Clark did. The 10-year veteran of the Independence Fire Department remembers vividly the moment he knew he wanted to be a firefighter.
“I wanted the opportunity to help people; that’s always been a big part of who I am,” Clark said. “On a first grade field trip to the fire station, I decided I wanted to become a firefighter. That career choice has always stuck with me through the years.”
The Independence, Missouri, native went to William Chrisman High School and the University of Central Missouri. He trained to be a firefighter at the Louis F. Garland Department of Defense Fire Academy at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas.
The lifelong Kansas City Royals and Kansas City Chiefs fan spent six years as an active-duty firefighter in the United States Air Force. He achieved the rank of staff sergeant and was deployed twice – once for Operation Enduring Freedom and once for Operation Iraqi Freedom.
After his discharge from the Air Force, Clark was a firefighter for one year at the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant in Independence before joining the IFD, where he serves now as a fire equipment operator and is a member of the hazardous materials technician response team.
It was a collection of experiences throughout his life and career that challenged Clark’s mental health and well-being.
“Losing my father when I was nine years old in an ATV accident. Experiences I had during both of my deployments. Friends in the line of duty with career-ending injuries or losing their life in the line of duty, both on the fire department and on deployments. Traumatic calls throughout my 17-year career,” Clark recounted.
“I reached a point in my life that I didn’t think I had the ability to get through. I had been trying my best to hold it all together on my own for years,” Clark said. “I felt like I was failing at everything – fatherhood, life, you name it, along with being at the end of a failed marriage. It was getting more difficult to keep getting back up from every perceived misstep.”
A good friend suggested Clark get professional help to deal with the trauma. It took several months before Clark decided to reach out to The Battle Within, a local nonprofit organization that helps veterans and first responders deal with service-related trauma.
“It taught me a new toolset to help handle the difficult experiences life throws at us all. I’m a better father for both of my sons. I’m a better version of me for everyone in my life, most importantly, myself,” Clark said. “Admitting that you need a shoulder to lean on in the rough patches of life isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s extremely brave and shows strength of character. We weren’t meant to do any of this alone.”
The Battle Within is one program Clark supports with his time and talent. Besides serving as a mentor for the non-profit organization, he recently volunteered at the “Wiffle Ball at The Hollow” fundraiser that raised more than $150,000 for The Battle Within. Clark also helps the local firefighters’ union (IAFF Local 781), including organizing and implementing the union’s “Stop Shop and Drop” Christmas shopping program for impoverished students in the Independence School District.
“Each student is given $100 to buy gifts for themselves,” Clark said. “Firefighters take the students shopping so that we get to spend time with them and help them make good choices. One interesting thing that almost always happens is that they want to buy gifts for their family, not themselves.”
Clark quoted one of his favorite authors, Brené Brown, when talking about a human being’s need to connect: “We are hardwired to connect with others. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.”
What gives purpose and meaning to Clark’s life are his two sons – Barrett, age 3 ½, and Griffin, who turns two in late September – his parents, three siblings and eight nieces and nephews.
It takes a committed person with a vision for making a difference to follow through on a lifelong dream. It takes a strong person with conviction to follow through on getting the help needed to improve one’s mental health.
For both those reasons, Independence Fire Department firefighter Billy Clark has been selected as a “Blue KC Hometown Hero.” The honor is awarded by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City in partnership with the Kansas City Royals. Billy will be recognized at the Royals game on Friday, September 17.