BY SOL MEZTLI GARCIA
McALLEN — Justin Perez walked to his locker as he held onto his coworker. He needed to put his fireproof boots on before handling a “small emergency,” one of the duties as the new McAllen fire chief. The 4-year-old was suited up and ready.
About three weeks ago, the Make-A-Wish Foundation of the Rio Grande Valley contacted the Hidalgo County Fire Marshal’s Office to explain Justin’s situation — this young boy would soon begin treatment for cancer. Could a local fire department help make his dream come true before then?
“We found out he wanted to be a firefighter for a day, and we’re like, ‘Well, not a firefighter day. He’s going to be chief for a day,’” said James Schultz, current McAllen fire chief.
The Hidalgo County Fire Marshal’s Office, the McAllen Fire Department, the Texas Department of Public Safety and the foundation, along with other local sponsors and agencies, arranged a celebration for the new chief.
With the help of other firefighters, Justin commenced the day by raising the American flag.
From there, the new chief walked over to his personalized locker and got dressed for the day in his firefighter uniform. He was ready to ride in a fire truck and have breakfast with the staff and his family, including his parents Laura and Roman, as well as his sister, grandparents, an aunt and cousins.
A “surprise” fire occurred, giving Justin the opportunity to extinguish his first fire as a chief while his family cheered. To Justin’s surprise, a clown and a character from the Marvel Universe, Deadpool, appeared.
Justin loves superheroes like the Avengers, but he has always wanted to be a firefighter, his mother, Laura Moreno, said.
“He’s always found the fire trucks attractive,” she said. “Every time he sees one, he points ‘em out, especially when they make noise.”
As a mother, seeing the agencies and departments come together to help Justin reach his dream has been almost “overwhelming” for Moreno.
“I’m overjoyed with happiness,” she laughed. “I kind of want to have happy tears … it is just so exciting.”
Usually, Justin stays close to his mother, but on this occasion, he was too busy having fun, she said.
“He doesn’t even miss me!” Moreno said. “We’re so attached, and he doesn’t even miss me.”
After his morning at the fire department, Justin experienced a helicopter ride accompanied by his parents to the McAllen International Airport Fire Station. A parade consisting of first responder vehicles and later a performance by the honor guard were hosted in Justin’s honor.
Schultz hopes the memory of Saturday’s events will stay with Justin and his family.
“Tangible things are just things. You put stuff on a shelf and it collects dust. It’s the memories that live in your heart, in your mind forever. That’s what we’re trying to provide to this young man … the experience that he is so special to us that we will give him the experience of being a firefighter and chief for the day. That’s what we want him to walk away with,” he said.
For Schultz, giving up his title for the day was an easy decision.
“Handing it over to this young man is easy for me today because what we do as firefighters is we serve the community, and if this is one little thing I could do to serve this young man, I’ll gladly give up my hat for the day,” he added.
Juan Gloria, McAllen assistant fire chief, called the event an honor for the entire department.
“As firefighters, as first responders, we are always trying to do something to make things better for others. Unfortunately, most of the time it’s always under emergency circumstances … and this is a very fulfilling opportunity for us to make a difference in somebody’s life in a different way other than fighting a fire,” Gloria said.