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Adopted Fairfield firefighter ‘one of those guys who make you smile’

Every Saturday morning during the spring and summer, Fairfield firefighters help local Special Olympic athletes train for about an hour.

It’s a way for them to give back.

Through that community service — that began more than 20 years ago behind the leadership of Capt. Jim Howell — a special bond has been born with one athlete, Duane Sparks, 50, a person with developmental disabilities. It’s only fitting that Sparks and the firefighters have formed a friendship because as a child Sparks was fascinated by the sounds of sirens and the sights of lights.

He was born to be a firefighter, Sparks was, but while that was impossible, he has been adopted by the Fairfield Fire Department, especially firefighters/paramedics Scott Goller and Rob Lance.

Jean Sparks talks about her son’s relationship with Fairfield firefighters. (Rick McCrabb/Staff)

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“They’re the brothers Duane never had,” said his mother Jean Sparks. “He likes them. Their friendship is unbelievable. You can tell when they’re with him how much they love and appreciate him.”

This summer, after Sparks broke an ankle while exercising, he had three months of rehabilitation at the Tri-County Extended Care in Fairfield. After he was transported from Planet Fitness in a squad, he told his mom: “There were lights and sirens and the cars had to move out of the way.”

While Sparks resided at Tri-County, Fairfield firefighters made several medical runs there.

Without fail, they were greeted at the front door by Sparks, and as they pulled away, he stood at the window and waved good-bye. One time, when a resident called the fire department directly, it was Sparks who guided the firefighters to the resident’s room.

On other occasions, firefighters brought Sparks three-ways from Skyline Chili, where he worked for 33 years, and smuggled in 12-packs of Diet Coke.

And every time there’s a parade, the firefighters make room for Sparks on the fire truck.

Call him Firefighter Sparks.

“He’s one of those guys who make you smile,” Goller said. “If you talk to Duane for about five minutes, you gravitate toward him. He’s hilarious. I’ve never seen Duane in a bad mood. Ever. You can just see how caring the guy is.”

Lance added: “He draws you in.”

Howell encourages Sparks and his mother to feel at home in the Fairfield fire station.

“Duane is just one of the guys that brightens your day when he comes in,” Howell said.

When asked about the firefighters’ commitment to the Special Olympics, he said: “We get more out than we put in. Just the friendships we make.”

As Howell talked, Sparks sat across the room, Lance on his right, Goller on his left. Nothing, it seemed, could have made Sparks happier. At least not based from his smile.

His mother didn’t know he had developmental disabilities until he was 18 months old. He didn’t start talking until he was 5. He attended schools in Fairfield and Ross and also was a student at Fair Acres Center, now the Janet Clemmons Center for Young Children and Families.

She said what her son lacked in academic skills he compensated with his personality and mobility.

This summer, he celebrated his 50th birthday. The theme, of course, was firefighters, “right down to the cake,” his mother said.

Sparks and his mother have traveled extensively and every trip must include a stop at the local fire station whether they’re in Alaska, California or West Virginia. He has been known to ask a firefighter for a souvenir T-shirt, his mother said. He’s also an honorable member of the Ross Fire Department.

“These are his heroes,” his mother said.

She never has “hidden” her son, she said. He goes where she goes. They’re a team, just like the firefighters he adores.

“That says a lot about Jean,” Goller said.

She stopped him almost in mid-sentence. “I’m just a mom,” she said.

That’s like saying her son is just a firefighter.

Both are special in their own ways.

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