Statesboro's youngest firefighter was laid to rest Wednesday with full honors. Aaron Gene Oliver, 8, lost the battle against leukemia Sunday.
Diagnosed with the fatal disease almost a year before, in May 2013, the Mill Creek Elementary first-grader was the first honorary Statesboro firefighter to participate in the Firefighter for a Day program.
Not only was he the first, but Aaron was the inspiration for the program.
Wednesday afternoon, Hodges-Moore Funeral Home was crowded with friends and family members who mourned the loss of the lively child, yet celebrated his zest for life. After the funeral services, Aaron made his last ride on Statesboro Fire Department's Engine 3 to Bulloch Memorial Gardens.
It was a very moving ceremony, said Kallie Grooms, who calls Aaron her "bonus grandbaby." Aaron is her grandson's half-brother, she said.
"We loved him like he was our own," she said. "I enjoyed time with him. I am so proud of our community for what they did for him. You wouldn't believe the fire trucks (in the funeral procession)."
More than a dozen fire trucks from several area agencies, including Bulloch County volunteer firefighters and the Sylvania Fire Department, along with the Statesboro Fire Department, participated in the procession.
Aaron's honorary firefighter status came after he and his father, Buddy Oliver, stopped by the Statesboro Fire Department one day hoping for a tour and a ride. Aaron has always been fascinated by fire trucks and firefighters.
That day, it wasn't possible to fulfill the boy's dreams, but firefighter Chris Page was so moved by Aaron's spirit and interest, he asked his superiors about coming up with something special for Aaron.
"We had never met before," Page said Wednesday as he and other firefighters prepared for the funeral. That day, Aaron and his father had a brief tour of the fire station, but "we wanted to do a little more than just take him for a ride, considering the situation he was in."
That idea grew into something permanent - a program geared toward making special memories for children in similar situations to Aaron, 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,'" he told the Statesboro Herald the day Aaron became an honorary firefighter.
One day last November, Aaron enjoyed a day of wielding a spray hose to extinguish a controlled blaze set specifically for that purpose. He smiled broadly as he sat behind the wheel of a fire engine, radioing to dispatch and checking safety gear.
He was officially sworn into his new position, raising his right hand and reciting a "special" oath written just for him. Firefighters presented him with a uniform and cap, but the highlight of the day was when a fire alarm sounded and 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" afterwards, Page said.
When asked his thoughts on becoming a "real" firefighter when he grew up, Aaron pointed to the name embroidered on his new uniform and replied "I am a firefighter."
That comment exemplifies Aaron's spirit and confidence, said Joe Grooms, a family friend. He said Aaron also enjoyed riding in his tractor-trailer rig,
"He was a normal child — would wear you out," Grooms said. Speaking during the funeral procession to the cemetery, he said Aaron was likely "looking down from heaven, smiling and having a ball."
Page recalled Aaron's enthusiasm the day he became a firefighter.
"He was ecstatic, excited," Page said. "He felt like one of the guys. He acted like he didn't have to worry about doctors or the disease. It was one of the most rewarding and greatest days of my life as a firefighter."
Aaron was honored with a full official firefighter's funeral. His badge number, 001, was retired, and his father was presented with a Statesboro Fire Department shield and Aaron's firefighter helmet. When firefighters presented the shield and helmet to Aaron's father, the more than 60 people gathered at the gravesite — along with a large contingent of firefighters — quietly sobbed.
Grooms said Oliver family was moved by the efforts of local firefighters.
"It was pretty awesome," Grooms said.
Page said the "Firefighter for a Day" program will continue, with Aaron as the inspiration.
Grams said the department is looking for future participants in the program. 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.
Holli Deal Bragg may be reached at (912) 489-9414.