"One of the most incredible things that a firefighter will ever do is to mentor and guide a young person as they begin a career in the fire service. The reward comes the day when the bell rings and that young man or woman is now your backup, your partner."
-Battalion Chief (ret.) Byron Berhel
Firefighter Youth Academy Founder/SFARY C.E.O
In 1991, the members of the Richmond Black Professional Firefighters Association (RBPFFA) noticed a disturbing trend of violence in the community. As firefighters in urban environments, they responded to increasing numbers of medical emergencies that resulted from acts of violence. Far too often, it was young African-American males who were both the perpetrators and the victims of violence, suffering serious injury and death.
As first responders, firefighters had a chance to build on the community’s trust and felt an obligation to prevent future violence. The idea of the Firefighter Youth Academy was born. The academy’s purpose is simple: to share the firefighting career and provide professional guidance and life skills to young teenagers. Captain Byron Berhel, former RBPFFA President Captain Ron Williams, and Fire Chief Floyd Cormier Jr. were instrumental in launching and supporting the first Richmond Youth Academy in 1994. The academy used a retired fire station located in the City of Richmond, and depended on partners like the Richmond Fire Department, educators, and the faith-based community to provide the program free of charge to the community's youth.
More than 20 years later, the Richmond Youth Academy has proven that the concept of the academy works. Academic achievement, community service, and self-discipline remain the core values of the program. The academy’s participants, called cadets, are a diverse group of young men and women from all ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds between the ages of 14-18. They are recruited from high schools with high drop out and expulsion rates, gang activities, drug use, and juvenile delinquency. The program provides hands-on firefighting awareness, community emergency response and preparedness training, first-aid and CPR training in a structured and disciplined environment. At the same time, cadets develop valuable life skills. Positive role models from the fire department mentor and coach cadets, empowering youth to serve their communities, enhance public safety, and take responsibility for their lives.
The academy has been successful on many levels. More than 85% of the cadets continued their education beyond high school and several graduates of the program went on to become successful, professional firefighters. Overall, academy participants increased their grade point average while decreasing their school absenteeism and discipline referrals. Parents and caregivers also reported better behavior at home.
REACHING NEW COMMUNITIES
Today, the need for more Firefighter Youth Academies is great. Solutions for At-Risk Youth (SFARY) is working to partner with local fire departments and school districts to replicate this successful Firefighter Youth Academy model. The goal is to serve youth of the most socio-economically challenged communities.