During the summer of 2016, Evesham Township police and fire officials came together at the inaugural Fallen Hero First Responder Softball Tournament, a fundraiser for the families of two deceased first responders.
Marlton residents Matthew Hempel, a member of Evesham Fire & Rescue, and Edward Zubrzycki, a member of the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office, took their own lives due to the demands of their jobs, according to township Capt. Walt Miller, leading to the creation of the tournament, which Evesham has continued in the years since as a way to help other first responders in need.
“We lost both Sgt. Zubrzycki and Lt. Matt Hemple due to suicide from the stress of their work, and we held the tournament that first year as a fundraiser for both their families,” Miller said. “And it was really successful, so we decided to make it an ongoing fund after that …
“If a police officer, fireman or any other first responder is injured or in need of financial support,” he added, “it serves as a financial line of support for those that need it.”
The tournament, which previously maxed out at a total of 16 teams at Diamonds at Arrowhead Park’s four baseball fields, had nine teams this year made up of police and fire officials, as well as government officials, other township boards and small businesses that support the Heroes Fund.
Six years have passed since the event began, with last year’s tournament limited to eight teams to accommodate social distancing. Miller called game day a significant time to both honor the township’s fallen first responders and bring the community together.
“I know for me personally, it’s my favorite day of the year, I love this tournament,” he said. “Because it brings the community, the police department and the fire department together for a day of fun that has nothing to do with things that we go through with our jobs every day.
“We’re forming relationships here with the community that have benefits later down the road, so it’s a huge plus,” Miller added. “I’m hoping next year we are fully out of COVID and we can get back up to 16 teams.”
Evesham Mayor Jaclyn Veasy assembled her own team and played in the tournament this year, something she’s also done in years past. Veasy said she’s happy to see the event continuing in the years since its inception.
“I’m very proud of the fact that we can do this every year,” the mayor said. “I became mayor three years ago, so this is now my third tournament that I’ve participated in … One of the heroes they honor every year is someone who I knew well before he died, so it means a lot to me and my family to be able to be here and support what they do.
“We’re all about making the community as inclusive as possible,” Veasy added, “so any chance like this to get people from the community in different areas to interact with police or fire officials in a more casual way, it really breaks down some barriers that you can typically see in some communities sometimes.”
For more information regarding the Evesham Township Heroes Fund, or to donate, look up the nonprofit on Facebook under the same name.