Until last month, Darci Nitzschke helped Pekin-area people in immediate need as a 911 dispatcher every working day for 31 years. She’s now confronting serious health issues.

Composed and rooted in the moment, she waited on her small front lawn Monday morning with family members for a visit they told her to expect from co-workers aboard “a city bus.”

Distant fire engine sirens grew louder. That wasn’t a bus flashing emergency lights coming down St. Julian Street toward her. Nova, Darci’s 2-year-old grand-niece, sat on her lap as family members started video recording the moment.

Darci looked down the street and deadpanned, “Well, that’s special.”  

Still unsure what she was seeing, her emotions rose and tears welled as 15 visitors – friends and total strangers, the latter wearing pink firefighting apparel – emerged from three fire engines and trucks painted in pink and covered with signatures and messages.

Pink Heals, a unique cancer and illness support group based in Arizona, had come to hug Darci.

“We make philanthropic visits” to people battling cancer and other diseases “to lift their spirits, give them a hug,” said Dave Graybill, a retired Arizona firefighter who formed the non-profit volunteer group 10 years ago.

“It’s a different way to reach out to individuals on a personal basis and make a direct effort” of support for their struggles, Graybill said when the fleet of vehicles gathered at City Hall before visiting another Pekin home prior to Darci’s.

Graybill said Pink Heals has grown, with volunteers and donated used fire trucks, to 200 branches in the United States, Canada and Mexico. It takes requests from families, churches and doctors for visits and accepts donations only to pay its travel and maintenance costs, he said.

The fleet to Pekin came from a Pink Heals branch in Sauk Valley, near Rockford. It stopped Saturday in Bloomington, then motored to Pekin on a Monday agenda that also took it to homes in Bartonville, Peoria and Dunlap before ending the day with a surprise visit, which was arranged by family, to a woman at an East Peoria restaurant.

The visitors to Darci’s home, including city firefighters and police officers, lined up to offer flowers, kind words and, from those she knew, hugs and kisses as Darci cuddled with Nova. Then came a literal Pink Heals signature moment, when Darci added her name in magic marker to the thousands on the fire engines’ side panels.

“You’re the one who wakes me up in the middle of the night,” an area volunteer firefighter joked with Darci, who sent out fire trucks and ambulances covering 34 communities on her shifts with Tazewell/Pekin Consolidated Communications Center.

“Did she curse when she saw us coming?” asked TPCCC Director Tammie Conover. “That would be like her.”

Before the day brought its surprise, Darci spoke directly about the battle she faces against her illness. Surrounded by Conover, other co-workers and first responders whose daily efforts to help others she shared, her strength surged.

“I might be back,” she said. “You never know.”

Follow Michael Smothers at Twitter.com/msmotherspekin