The article below originally appeared on MercuryNews.com and is being reprinted with permission.
The Menlo Park Fire Protection District is marking a milestone this year.
No, not the start of its 100-year anniversary celebrations, though that’s also under way.
The district earlier this month hired a firefighter, Charles Washington, who fits every description of homegrown. He grew up in the Belle Haven neighborhood and rose through the district’s Explorer cadet program, which he joined the day he turned 17 while attending Menlo-Atherton High.
Or, as the district stated in its announcement, Washington is “the first M/A High School Boy Scout Fire Explorer Program and College of San Mateo Fire Cadet to ever be hired with the Fire District.”
Though he’ll remain on probation as he continues on-the-job training and testing over the next 12 months, Washington, who just turned 22, has already impressed the top brass as a hard-working, humble individual who could grow into a leadership role with the department.
“What I heard about Charles in the academy is for a guy his age, he’s very dialed in,” fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said. “He possesses a level of leadership that goes beyond his years.”
Schapelhouman acknowledged that having a locally grown firefighter on staff “comes in handy sometimes,” but said he didn’t go out of his way to hire Washington just because he is local.
Menlo Park firefighter Eric Mijangos, who runs the district’s Explorer program, helped mentor Washington and hopes to eventually serve in the same station as the young firefighter.
“He’s going to be a great asset for our department, he is the future of our department,” Mijangos said. “I’m looking forward to working with him and seeing how he grows.”
Washington said that before he learned about the Explorer program, he had no idea what he might do for a career. He said it’s a common problem for teens in Belle Haven, as college may be out of the question for families living paycheck to paycheck.
It was a friend interested in firefighting who led him to try out as an Explorer.
“I didn’t really understand what being a firefighter was (but) the public service aspect … kind of made me interested,” said Washington, who also serves as head wrestling coach at Hillview Middle School and a volunteer assistant wrestling coach at Menlo-Atherton.
After 2½ years as an Explorer — which he called “basically a fire academy, but twice a month” — Washington settled on firefighting as a career and went on to enroll in the fire cadet program at College of San Mateo. Prior to joining the district, he worked as an emergency medical technician for American Medical Response.
“When you think about what firefighting stands for — professionalism, compassion, high morals — it stands for family, it stands for pretty much everything I was brought up to strive to be,” he said.
Aside from meshing with his values, Washington said he was struck by how every firefighter and fire official who spoke at the Explorer program exuded a love for their job.
“I’ve never seen a firefighter not happy to tell you about his job,” Washington said. “How can they do this for 30 years and still want to be here with us? It made me realize there’s more to it than what I was seeing.”
The new firefighter already looks back fondly at his first call with the district, which just happened last week.
“I was smiling because I was finally sitting in the firefighter-riding seat,” he said. “It made me feel like I was on top of the world.”
Ultimately, what keeps him moving forward is his family and friends in Belle Haven, he said.
“I want to make my mother proud, my father proud, my grandmother proud, because they believed in me, and I want to prove them right,” he said. “A lot of my friends still don’t think they can do anything with their life (and) I can show them there’s more to life … as long as you set your mind to something.”
Anyone between the ages of 14 and 21 can join the Explorer program, which is overseen by the Boy Scouts of America and runs year-round. Mijangos said the program is tailored for at-risk teens, regardless of whether they end up becoming firefighters.
“I personally use it as my way to find out what situation they are in,” said Mijangos, who himself was an Explorer in 1995, before getting hired by the district two years later. “I was in similar situations growing up. … (The program) is hard work, discipline, you gain some respect because you’re in a uniform (and) it’s giving them a possibility for the future.
“It’s almost like I’m a role model, pointing them in the right direction and helping them down that path. If it’s not firefighting, what is it you want to do and let’s get you there.”
Washington is among eight probationary firefighters the district hired this month, among them Brett Bates, who in 2014 was awarded Coast Guardsman of the Year. Schapelhouman said the district still plans to hire as many as 12 firefighters this year.
For more information on the Explorer program, call Eric Mijangos at 650-688-8435 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.