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Firefighter Who Lost 96 Lbs. After Diabetes Diagnosis Honored by Hometown with Surprise Party

Perry Clanton, of Buford, South Carolina, was devastated in 2013 when his father-in-law died due to complications from diabetes. Just two years later, 54-year-old Clanton was diagnosed with the disease himself, prompting a lifestyle change that has inspired his entire community.

“The first thing in my mind was devastation. That’s something no one wants to hear, especially if you have a father-in-law that just passed,” Clanton, assistant volunteer fire chief with Buford Fire and Rescue, tells PEOPLE of learning he has type 2 diabetes during a checkup in December 2015. “By the end of that appointment, I was a person with diabetes and it was devastating at the beginning.”

Clanton says that it was during that visit that he made up his mind: “I was going to do whatever I had to do to manage this disease and to be better.”

With that, Clanton altered his diet, began exercising regularly, and started using mobile app OneTouch Reveal and the OneTouch Verio Flex meter — a blood glucose monitoring system — to take control of his health.

In nearly three years, Clanton has lost 96 pounds, and his blood glucose levels have steadily improved.

His family and friends are in awe of Clanton’s progress and his wife, Donna Clanton, 53, says that her husband “has more energy than he’s ever had.”

“[Clanton] constantly was saying, ‘I’m not gonna let myself get like your daddy did,’ ” Donna recalls to PEOPLE. “That determination that he had to stay under control and to fight this diabetes with everything that he has.”

On Friday, Clanton’s family and friends celebrated his progress — and his birthday — with a surprise party at the Buford fire station.

“It was incredible. I don’t know how my family kept it such a secret for so long,” Clanton tells PEOPLE of the party, sponsored by OneTouch developer LifeScan. “It was just a tremendous day. It got to me, I got emotional. That celebration, I claimed it and it was mine. I was successful in my management and it was so great to see everyone surround me. It was the perfect present.”

Clanton adds, “That day will live on forever for me. It was an accomplishment and I felt good celebrating it that day.”

He was presented with a proclamation from Buford’s county council, marking July 20 “Assistant Fire Chief Perry Clanton Day,” due to Clanton’s efforts to improve his personal health while serving the community.

Still, Clanton says the greatest gift of all was seeing his son, 22-year-old Matthew Clanton, a Marine who had been training in Norway for the last two months.

“I wrapped my arms around him and held him tight and told him I loved him,” the father of two recalls of the emotional reunion. “It was a welcome home, I hadn’t seen him in a while. It was a birthday present for me. To have my family together was amazing.”

And the significance of the sweet surprise wasn’t lost on Matthew.

“When I saw his face, it made me feel like I gave back to him because he’s always giving back to other people,” Matthew says. “Growing up, he was always been my biggest supporter. I’ve always looked up to him. He’d do anything for everybody in the world … he’s very, very giving and just a great person.”

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