In 2013, Mike DeSherlia, collision center manager at Legacy Toyota in Tallahassee, Fla., began restoring a fire truck in the name of an 18-year-old girl who died of liver cancer after a valiant 22-month fight. The project was so rewarding for him that he’s doing another.
DeSherlia did the work on behalf of Pink Heals, an organization that raises money for families in need. Everyone in the organization is a volunteer. The volunteers drive pink fire trucks across the country as a visual reminder that “people matter,” selling merchandise to keep the trucks on the road and accepting donations to help local families deal with deadly diseases.
On Oct. 4, 2010, the Pink Heals Tour made its way to Tallahassee. That was when Tallahassee firefighter Sarah Cooksey met members of the organization and began thinking about how much the Tallahassee community needed the program. The very next day, Ariel Gandy, the child of a family friend of Cooksey’s, was diagnosed with liver cancer. The wheels really began turning at that point, and Cooksey decided she really wanted to make a difference.
On July 1, 2012, Ariel lost her battle with cancer. On Sept. 14, 2012, Cooksey traveled from Seattle, Wash., to San Francisco, Calif., as the driver on the national Pink Heals Tour. Upon returning from that trip, Cooksey was even more driven to make this happen for Tallahassee. In 2013, a truck was donated and Cooksey set about finding out how to get it restored and painted.
That was the first fire truck DeSherlia helped restore, a 1972 Pierce Snorkel which ironically was the Tallahassee Fire Department’s first-ever aerial truck, and was named Ariel after the young lady who passed away. The second one, a 1979 GMC which is slated to be completed by late July, will be named Miles after a young boy who lost his battle to neuroblastoma at just four years old.
Ariel was in pretty rough shape when DeSherlia received her, having been in two major wrecks. It became a three-year project into which DeSherlia plowed 7,000 personal hours.
“It was consuming. It was my vacation, my nights and weekends for three years,” says DeSherlia. “But it was worth it and it was totally cool.”
DeSherlia and his crew had to completely strip the 44-foot truck. Approximately 57 individuals and 22 companies volunteered products and services toward the project. He estimates that they used six gallons of fiberglass and eight gallons of body filler for the restoration. Plus, the old steel in her had no rust protection, so they had to cut a lot of metal.
After the project was completed, everyone who was involved with the restoration had their name permanently installed on two crosspieces located in the bed. Anyone dealing with or that has dealt with a life-altering disease such as cancer can sign her with permanent marker.
“The marker eventually fades away, but we like to think it fades into the truck and becomes part of it,” DeSherlia says.
DeSherlia, who was a volunteer firefighter out of high school, says he never thought he would be driving a fire truck around the dealership. It lives at the shop when not touring the region, and he often looks at it and reflects on what it means.
“When I’m having a bad day, I walk out and read what people wrote on the truck and it makes everything come into perspective quickly,” he says.
Miles is a cleaner truck than Ariel was, so DeSherlia estimates the restoration won’t take as long. There is a little body work to be done, but mostly it will be paint.
Legacy Collision Center’s spraybooth isn’t big enough to accommodate the whole truck, but DeSherlia and his crew will improvise like they do when they paint large electric utility trucks. They will get the cab of the truck in the booth doors and then make a tent with heavy-gauge plastic to cover the rest, adding an air volumizer for circulation.
Legacy is located in a college town with two major universities, so every summer 120,000 people leave town, which creates some downtime for the shop – and the perfect time to work on Miles.
“With the first truck, I didn’t want any acknowledgement. I don’t care if people know my name,” DeSherlia says. “But what I’ve come to realize watching Pink Heals operate over the last two years is I have to be part of it to help Sarah and her organization. We have to tell our story to get theirs out. What they stand for and what they do is everything that is right about our country.”