Backstoppers helps families of fallen heroes -

Backstoppers helps families of fallen heroes

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- A unique program has provided the families of fallen police officers and firefighters in the St. Louis area with help with everything from utility bills to college tuition for 50 years.

BackStoppers, which depends solely on donations, spends $1 million a year to support the families of 47 of the fallen.

The beneficiaries include Anne Sebold, whose husband, 45-year-old St. Louis police officer Louis Sebold, was killed in the line of duty 34 years ago.

"You felt like you had support," Sebold said of dealing with her husband's loss. "Like you could do this."

Eleven businessmen who were concerned about the financial consequences for widows and orphans of police and fire personnel founded BackStoppers in 1959. Since then, 119 St. Louis-area public safety workers have died in the line of duty.

Ron Battelle, a retired St. Louis County police chief and the group's director, said knowing there was such support for families helped boost recruitment at police and fire departments.

The group benefits spouses and children of police, firefighters, publicly funded paramedics and EMTs, and volunteer firefighters who die performing their duties in 12 Missouri and 11 Illinois counties around St. Louis.

Many nonprofit groups donate to the families of emergency workers, but Battelle said he believes none provide the same level of financial commitment as BackStoppers.

Members of BackStoppers arrive within hours of the person's death, bearing money and good wishes.

Sebold said she received an initial check of $2,000 to use however she wanted.

The group then helps the family assess its financial condition and begin wiping out debts, including home and car loans.

Sebold, 74, said BackStoppers made her $100 monthly house payments after her husband, a 17-year veteran, was shot confronting a gunman outside a St. Louis church in 1975.

She lost touch with the agency in the early 1980s when she moved to south St. Louis County, but they reconnected a few years later.

"They went over all my expenses with me and said, 'You are basically bankrupt,"' she recalled.

Since then, the group has made her house payments, dental or health insurance premiums, home improvement loan installments and even prescription co-payments.

Sue Reifschneider, 69, of Maryland Heights, said BackStoppers paid off $23,000 in debt after a drunken driver killed her husband, St. Louis County officer James Reifschneider, in 1977. That allowed her to become a stay-at-home mom for their three children, then 12 to 17.

"It stabilized them, because they looked for me when they came home from school," Reifschneider said.

She eventually went back to work and is now at the front desk of the county police's second precinct, working among some of her husband's former co-workers.

"I could have never supported those kids," Reifschneider said. "My son jokes and says without BackStoppers, we'd be living in the park."

Her son, Mike Reifschneider, is now a county police lieutenant and knows BackStoppers would be there for his wife and two children.

"I know lightning can strike twice," he said. "But because of BackStoppers, we had as few interruptions in life as we could. It's devastating to lose him, but you're not losing your home too or worrying about where the next meal is coming from."

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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