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7-year-old battling leukemia becomes a firefighter for a day
Aaron grins as he gets to pull the air horn on one of the city's fire trucks during his "Firefighter for a Day" experience with the Statesboro Fire Department on Wednesday. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

Standing at about 4 feet tall, with a waist no larger than the hydrant next to him, 7-year-old Aaron Oliver doesn’t look like the average firefighter.

Then again, Wednesday was no average day for the diminutive first-grader.

While his peers were sitting in school, Aaron was more than two stories in the air, wielding a spraying hose; he was behind the wheel of a fire engine, radioing to dispatch; and he was checking safety gear, ensuring its availability at a moment’s notice.

At least for a day, Aaron Oliver was the Statesboro Fire Department’s newest cadet — battling fires and performing as the hero he always wanted to be.

And on the day, he was given a reprieve from another fight — one that has made him the hero he already is.

On May 26, Aaron was diagnosed with leukemia. The always energetic young man had shown only slight signs of feeling ill, and the sudden, surreal discovery caught his family completely off-guard.

“We couldn’t believe he had leukemia,” said Sandra English, Aaron’s grandmother. “Nothing seemed very wrong. He played baseball this year and had done many other activities completely fine.”

Even so, according to English, Aaron took everything in stride. He began treatment, received a favorable prognosis — his family hopes he can return to school in a couple of months — and never changed his demeanor.

“He’s being doing well so far. After treatments, he’s been back to himself,” English said. “He is the same kid he has always been. He is energetic and very inquisitive; really great and very smart. And, as always, he loves anything to do with fire trucks and firefighters.”

It is Aaron’s interest in fire trucks and the men who operate them that led his father, William “Buddy” Oliver, to stop by a Statesboro fire station recently.

Oliver hoped his son could see the trucks up close, maybe go on a ride, and have a memorable experience.

Members of the Statesboro Fire Department, though unable to deliver at the moment, decided to do him one better.

“While the Statesboro Fire Department was not able to grant him his wish that day, the department wanted to make sure that he got his ride one day,” Statesboro Fire Chief Tim Grams said. “As soon as Aaron left the station, the Fire Department went to work on the idea, and within a short time, created the ‘Firefighter for the Day Program.’ The program is intended to help make life a little better for children that are facing difficult challenges at a young age.”

Through the efforts, championed by firefighter Chris Page, who met Aaron during the first visit, the young man with dreams of becoming a firefighter would have his wish and be the first to participate in the new program.

Wednesday morning, Aaron was officially sworn into his new position. He raised his right hand and recited a “special” oath given by Public Safety Director Wendell Turner.

“I, Aaron Oliver, do solemnly swear to be the best firefighter ever; and to do a much better job than Chief Grams,” he said — seriously, while Turner laughed.

Next, the youngster was presented with a uniform and beanie cap, to match the outfits of his new co-workers.

Then, the fun began.

Aaron wasted no time in hopping into the driver’s seat of the first truck he saw. He found the horn, the siren, and inspected every nook, cranny and compartment.

He was shown air tanks, hoses and various controls.

“It is fun being a firefighter,” he said.

Later, firefighters ignited a controlled fire — in a barrel — and let him douse it.

Aaron also took a ride into the sky, in the bucket of the department’s newest ladder truck, and fired water onto the ground below.

“He has been great. He has really enjoyed it, and we have really enjoyed having him here,” said Page, about halfway through Aaron’s day on the job. “It is truly an honor to do something like this for children in the community who have had unfortunate circumstances fall upon them. We just want to remind him that we are here for him — and also help to get his mind off of other things going on in his life. We want him to focus on being a kid, enjoying the day and having fun as a firefighter.”

Just minutes into the day, a fire alarm sounded.

Aaron accompanied firefighters to a Georgia Southern University building for what turned out to be a false alarm.

He was given the honor of radioing dispatch, to give the “all-clear.”

“He has done great; been very spirited and fit right in. He hasn’t been shy, and jumped right in with both feet,” Grams said. “He certainly has a lot of the characteristics we look for in our career folks. That is for sure.”

Throughout the rest of the day, Aaron was shown the ins and outs of work as a firefighter. He helped unroll and roll hoses, tried on gear and ate a big lunch in the firefighter living quarters.

When asked his thoughts on becoming a firefighter some day, Aaron pointed to the name embroidered on his new uniform and replied assertively: “I am a firefighter.”

The 7-year-old described his experience Wednesday as “fun” and “really cool.”

The highlights of the day: “Getting to ride in the fire truck, and honking the horn to scare (one of the unsuspecting firefighters),” he said.

Grams said the department is looking for future participants in the Firefighter for a Day program

He said anyone who knows a child living with a life-altering condition and who would like to participate can contact the Statesboro Fire Department by calling (912) 764-3473.

Jeff Harrison may be reached at (912) 489-9454.

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