LAKE COUNTY, Ohio — Up until about the age of 8, Tommy Newman was just known as Tommy.
"He's non-verbal, so he can't talk, he does communicate using an iPad app," said Jenna Newman, Tommy’s mother.
Now the Mentor boy, described by his mother as a bundle of happiness with a touch of craziness now has a nickname.
"We call him Firefighter Tommy," said Newman.
But the funny thing about Tommy, Newman said, was that for the longest time, he really disliked firetrucks.
However, after Newman started a special needs safety program with the Mentor Fire Department, things quickly changed.
"After months and months of going to fire stations and learning fire safety and interacting with the firefighters, he loves them now," said Newman.
Newman's non-profit, Heroes Helping Those With Special Needs, has helped train more than 700 first responders on how to best interact with children like Tommy in emergency situations.
"They have the typical safety town, but it's also important for my kid and other kids with autism and special needs to learn safety too," said Newman.
Over the last three years, her son has formed a special bond with local firefighters.
"He loves going up to the fire stations and hanging out with his buddies," said Newman.
So when the Lake County Birthday Club learned Tommy was about to turn 11, they sprang into action.
"We'll do anything that kind of makes it extra special for the children," said Michael Zuren.
The organization that celebrates birthdays for children with special needs or facing medical issues contacted 28 different fire departments across the country.
"They sent in shirts and patches and an actual helmet for firemen, which we thought was just extra special," said Zuren.
The gifts, sent from as far away as Florida, Minnesota, and North Carolina, were handed out during a firefighters’ baseball tournament.
The birthday club also surprised Tommy with traditional celebratory items such as balloons and a birthday cake with a fire truck on it on Sunday afternoon.
The gifts were given to Newman during an annual baseball tournament held in Mentor, where he threw out the first pitch to kick off the event.
"It was awesome. It just makes my heart so happy. When he's happy, I'm happy," said Newman.
Jenna said Tommy was excited to add new fire department t-shirts to his rotation.
"He wears them to school. Those are the only shirts he wears to school," said Newman.
Tommy also had the day commemorating him in Lake County as “Tommy Newman Day,” as proclaimed by Zuren, also the county's treasurer.
The outpouring of support proves it's the small things that can make a huge difference in the life of a child with special needs.
"Now when we go up to the Willoughby Fire Department sometimes and he'll just sweep the garage floor, he cleans it up for them, he loves hanging out with the guys," said Newman.
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