Camp 911 is a program developed by the City of Virginia Beach where a diverse group of middle school kids spends a week learning about public safety professions. AFI recently talked with the founders of Camp 911 - Cassaundra Taylor, Recreation Specialist II, Anna Elias-Perez, Human Resources Analyst, and Vanessa Austin, Master Firefighter and Paramedic.
AFI: To start, can you give a summary of Camp 911 and what sparked the idea between the three of you?
Vanessa: It's a summer camp open to both male and female middle school students to explore public safety career fields. The fire department, the EMS department, police department, dispatch, risk management and Sheriff's Office teamed up to provide weeklong activities and hands-on interaction. The camp was intended to specifically target females and minorities with the hopes that they gain career interest in public safety since both of these audiences are underrepresented in public safety. But we also need to partner with other city agencies to help make it happen.
Anna: That's where our Parks and Recreation came into play. Vanessa started the conversations with all the public safety departments and then got in touch with Parks and Recreation. That's where Cassaundra, myself and our team starting pitching in. We helped with the youth development aspect, recruitment and all the “behind the scene” things to get the kids there.
Cassaundra: A lot of times public safety professionals see kids and families on their worst day. So, this was an opportunity for us to expose them to the kids in a good, positive, healthy setting where they got to work side by side with them.
AFI: This is not a traditional summer camp. So, can you tell me about any unique activities within the program?
Anna: Each day of the week they're with a different public safety representative or department. But this isn’t a camp to just go visit and see what departments do, like look at a firetruck or sound the sirens. No – instead they were on the hose, crawling through smoke, doing the aerial climb, putting on the gear, etc. And that was just on the Fire Department day!
Cassaundra: The same thing happened on EMS day, they got hands-on experience doing back boarding and CPR. On Police day they got to put on the gear and got to identify whether a situation was a threat or not. They got to work side by side with these public safety officers. It was amazing to see the impact that we had on the group that week to build the trust, to bridge the gap and establish those relationships with their community public safety officers. The kids needed to understand what it is that they do every day to gain that experience and trust.
At the end, they gave us hugs. They wanted to come back next year. You could just really see the impact that we had, and the kids had a very, very good time.
AFI: After the week was over, were there any reactions that stuck with you or surprised you?
Anna: One thing that I think speaks volumes is that we had a one hundred percent attendance rate for the entire week. But it wasn’t going to start that way – at the beginning, the kids were very vocal and honest about how they felt being there. It wasn’t a choice for all of them.
Cassaundra: For me, a couple of examples come to mind. On the first day, one of the participants was very hesitant about the Police day, even adamant about not attending that day. But she came and not only did she participate, she laughed, smiled, and got to interact with several of the officers and it was a really good experience. She was one who didn't want to be at the camp in general and at the end she wanted to make sure we're having it next year.
Anna: I also think back to day one - we asked them about what they enjoyed doing over the summer and most of them said sleeping. But when graduation came, all of them and their parents were asking us how they could do this again and were genuinely appreciative of the time they had with us. Seeing that flip was really rewarding.
AFI: Anna, you mentioned a bit about the current climate – with the distrust in public safety officers right now and the need to make sure there’s social equity in your community, where do you see the challenges moving forward? Do you feel like you're going to have to regain some of the trust that's been lost?
Anna: As someone who used to wear a badge, I'm not oblivious to the fact that there are going to be challenges, but I like to focus on what I can do. In my set career field, I can focus on what’s front of me and our focus is going to remain on Camp 911. We want to make sure our camp recruitment is intentional and doing the same thing that it has done before because the children that we’ve had didn’t come with an open mind, there was mistrust.
We will break down those barriers gradually. We can't force it. But through the interactions, I have a feeling we'll be able to continue to accomplish that even as we have more kids in the camp. We're going to focus on relationship building and are going to present them with the knowledge and experience to understand what these public safety officers go through.
But we also are going to honor their feelings. We're very adamant from the start about honoring their feelings and experiences and not discounting them. We understand those feelings and are going to do our best to build trust.
Vanessa: Last year we showed this by example. Between our demonstrations and interactions with coworkers, the kids were able to see us working together and having fun. I think rebuilding trust comes from seeing the human side of us, that we can laugh and joke like everyone else. We can also have one-on-one conversations where they can ask me anything about my career and about who I am as a person. I can tell them about my family and my background and we can have an open dialogue.
AFI: Does it feel like a long time to wait another four years to see who applies for these jobs after graduating from high school? Is that in the back of your minds throughout this?
Cassaundra: When you work with youth you just know that you're making an impact on their behavior and their attitude. So yes, we want them to join and we want to increase diversity in recruitment. But at the same time, the relationship-building piece is very important to us too.
Through this, they also learn some valuable life skills. If they are in an emergency situation, they’ll be able to stay calm and understand that people are coming to help. It was eye-opening for them to listen to dispatch and see what they have to process at that moment while the person on the other end of the line is panicking. Now if they ever have to call 911, they understand what’s on the receiving end and how they can assist.