Teen girls rappel down buildings, learn firefighting during empowerment camp
Jenna Stark is the woman you’d want to pull you from a burning building.
She can deadlift 300 pounds and back-squat 200. She’s good to go on 45 minutes of sleep. And she regularly takes ice baths to control her body’s reaction to the cold.
So it was appropriate that the 5-foot-8, 170-pound cross-fit-gym-owner-turned-firefighter was a mentor during this weekend’s Girls Empowerment Camp at the Orange County Fire Authority headquarters in Irvine.
Last year’s camp, the first in Orange County, was so popular that 22 extra spots were added this year, for a total of 61 girls and five boys, said Training Chief Chuck Fedak.
The event, sponsored by OCFA Foundation, was free.
Seven teams, each headed by a female firefighter, including one helicopter pilot, rotated through exercises designed to build confidence and self-esteem. Sixty other OCFA workers and volunteers helped provide support.
The campers climbed up and down a ladder truck – 70 steps that exposed the ground below. Wearing fire gear, they crawled through a maze of darkness inside the “Confidence Trailer.” They learned to use fire hoses while high-pressured water shot out with a mind of its own. They used an ax, a sledgehammer, and an ear-piercingly loud chainsaw.
“A lot of qualities firefighters have – strong work ethic, leadership, teamwork, confidence – are attributes the girls can use even if only a small percentage of them want to become firefighters,” Fedak said.
Destiny McKee, 15, of Cypress needed that confidence Sunday, March 8, as she contemplated rappelling off a 30-foot structure. “I did a lot of talking to myself,” she said.
Capt. Chris Stevens helped alleviate her fear, explaining the two ropes can each hold 8,000 pounds, or the equivalent to four Chevy Suburbans. “So unless you ate a lot of burritos for breakfast, you’re OK.”
“I just kind of went for it,” she said. “Once I took that step, it was scary all the way down.”
She did it twice.
Nicole Holaday and her friend, Jordan Clark, both 14, of Lake Forest, were part of Stark’s group.
Clark, who considers herself a musical, creative type, said she never would have considered a career as a firefighter. Stark “showed us that girls can do anything,” she said, adding that she is now open to the possibility.
Stark – a former Division I softball player at Texas A&M – is the only woman among 27 firefighters at Station 61 in Buena Park – she was selected from a pool of 3,600 fire academy applicants in 2017. She is also one of 19 women firefighters out of the 1,110 who serve with the OCFA.
“I love being a firefighter and this is a chance to give back to the community,” the 28-year-old said with infectious excitement. “This is what I was meant to do.”
Fraternal twins Ariadna and Janeiska Vidal, 14, whose dad was a firefighter in Peru, said they were attending because they both want a career in public safety.
Ariadna wants to be a dispatcher so she can “help people without putting my life in danger,” she said. Janeiska wants to be a paramedic “to honor the people who saved my life.” She had three operations by age 3 for a heart condition.
“Nothing in life is worth having, if it comes easy. Easy is where you get the crowds,” Stark said. “I teach them to be persistent.”
Stark was living the example. She volunteered at the camp Saturday, then worked a full shift overnight running on calls, including attending a patient in full cardiac arrest.
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