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Esquimalt firefighters forge springboard experiences for students

Fire department, Greater Victoria School District build bridges with new program
Kids interact with firefighters at the Esquimalt hall. (Courtesy Lindsay Johnson)

Esquimalt Fire Chief Steve Serbic credits a pair of cops with a big part of his growth as a youth. They were at the root of his early desire to be a firefighter, and now his need to foster ties with the youth of the community.

When he took the helm of the department, Serbic scoped out the relationship with the Greater Victoria School District (SD61) and found room for growth.

When working with the Surrey department, there was a gateway program for kids who had left school early. It partnered first responders with young people.

“It was just a connection. Those kids that were struggling and lost their way were amazing kids,” Serbic said.

“It was the best thing to happen to me as a facilitator.”

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Hoping to build something similar, Serbic tasked Assistant Chief Greg Swan with making connections, and conversations with Lindsay Johnson at SD61 led to what she calls springboard experiences.

Johnson, the district vice principal of pathways and partnerships, said it was clear from the start that the department was willing to make the effort to build bridges with young people.

“I’m quite impressed with Esquimalt Fire’s willingness to do the hard work to look inward,” she said, adding it means something to really look at what makes a space an inclusive and safe place for all.

Springboard experiences – which the career education department offers in partnership with several organizations – offer one-day opportunities for students to peek into potential careers.

First responder work is more than just fighting fires, there are medical calls with the opioid epidemic impacting the job significantly, she noted.

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“That’s a lot of the work they’re doing on a daily basis. It’s not exposing students to that, but making them aware that’s part of the job,” she said.

The projects are part of a long-term goal to create a fire academy for students interested in a more in-depth experience. They hope to host three cohorts – all-female, Indigenous focus or all-inclusive – this school year.

The goal is not all about recruiting youth to become firefighters, but more about helping them make good choices in life and learn how fun and rewarding it is to help the community. Serbic doesn’t know a single kid who became a firefighter because of the Surrey program, but it built bridges.

“It’s not what you want to do, it’s who you want to be,” Johnson agreed.

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The connections remind Serbic of how sports saved his life. Growing up in East Vancouver, social services took over his life at a young age. At a certain point though, his dad signed him up for hockey where two police officers served as his first coaches. To that point, Serbic had hung out with people who are now dead or have served stretches incarcerated.

Those coaches changed his perspective on police and first responders. One day while sitting at a bus stop at Main and Hastings, a firetruck flew past. Serbic wanted to be one of the guys on that truck. “That never stopped,” the fire chief said.

He and Johnson both hope the Esquimalt department’s outreach inspires other local fire halls. Johnson noted there are eight high schools in SD61. She’d love to see programs at all of them.

“A lot of students who are disengaged don’t feel school is meaningful for them. These opportunities are meaningful and create chances for students to connect with who they are,” Johnson said. “This could be a hook to get them back in and re-engage with school.”

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Playing to the younger set

Esquimalt Fire is also connecting with kids at the elementary school level.

A couple of crew members are former Shamrocks players – Reed McPhail and Chris McElroy, a 10-year National Lacrosse League veteran. The local club not only produces fantastic players, “they also produce incredible people,” Serbic said.

The two kicked off the program in September, with others joining throughout the year. Firefighters bring lacrosse sticks to school and explain the spiritual aspects, history and Indigenous significance. Then they spend the rest of the time teaching and playing lacrosse with the class.

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Christine van Reeuwyk

About the Author: Christine van Reeuwyk

I'm dedicated to serving the community of Oak Bay as a senior journalist with the Greater Victoria news team.
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