Offering a ladder to success

Times Staff Writer

As a sophomore in high school, Omar Estrada saw two choices for his life: run with the notorious 204th Street gang in his Harbor Gateway neighborhood or make something of himself.

This summer, Estrada, now 21, heads to paramedic school and hopes to work for the Los Angeles Fire Department after he graduates.

Estrada started on the path when, as a student at Narbonne High, he heard Fire Department Capt. Alicia Mathis talk about an academy where youths raised wooden ladders, pulled heavy hoses and learned first aid under the guidance of professional firefighters.

He joined the seven-week program, which taught him discipline and helped him realize that there was life beyond the impoverished, overcrowded neighborhood where he grew up.

"The program is the reason I didn't join the gang," said Estrada, who works for a private ambulance company.

On Saturday, Estrada was back at the drill tower at Fire Station 40 in Terminal Island helping a new group of 95 youths, all from South Bay high schools, as they participated in a rigorous day of firefighting training.

About 20 of the students were struggling in school or brushing up against gangs when they were accepted into the program five weeks ago.

Joshua Williams, 15, a sophomore at Banning High, said some of his friends run with gangs and have tried to recruit him. Although he never joined, he said he had a temper problem and had gotten into fights with other students.

But entering the academy and learning the value of teamwork "helped me control my anger," said Williams, who wants to go to college and study computer technology.

He and others listened to Mathis on Saturday as she reviewed the training schedule.

"What are the two words we want to remember?" she asked.

" 'Safety' and 'teamwork,' ma'am," the students shouted.

For the last eight years, Mathis has helped direct the program, known as the Fire Instructional Recruitment Education Academy. It's sponsored by the Los Angeles Fire Department, Harbor College and the Los Angeles Unified School District. Supplies are purchased with $125,000 in grants from the Honda Foundation.

Mathis and other on-duty city firefighters supervised groups of students. Some were rappelling out the third-story window of the drill tower while others were timed against a 60-second clock as they donned heavy fire-protection pants, jackets and boots.

One group of trainees, wearing black firefighter helmets, marched in formation as they sang out in cadence: "We like it here. We love it here. We're training every day, hey!"

Amanda Arvizo, 18, a senior at Banning High, said she lacked confidence when she joined the program three years ago. She was the youngest -- and the only girl among the 13 trainees. She ended up finishing at the top of her class.

"That taught me I can do anything in life," said Arvizo, who plans on enrolling at Harbor College and wants to become a firefighter with the Los Angeles Fire Department.

Estrada, meanwhile, was teaching two students how to raise a 16-foot-long wooden ladder, which weighs about 75 pounds. One girl peeked at the top of the ladder -- and was quickly counseled by Estrada. "Don't ever look up. Something could fall in your face," he said.

It's been more than two years since he attended the academy, Estrada said, but he still comes back on Saturdays. "Hopefully, I can help them like I got the help."


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