Avondale firefighter David Santana moved to the United States with his parents when he was 8. Thinking back on his first year of school, he wishes it had a program like the mentorship collaboration he’s involved with now.
“It would have been nice to have somebody to kind of look up to that looked like me and spoke the same language as me, but now I’m in a position where I’m able to provide that support,” he said.
“It really makes me feel good, and hopefully other departments around the Valley will start something like this one.”
In the 2019-20 school year, the fire department and Avondale Middle School partnered to start a support and mentorship program for students.
Avondale Middle School Principal Lillian Linn said the idea came after seeing the Phoenix Fire Department’s similar program with a boys football team. The firefighters checked in with the players and their grades and built a relationship with them.
“I knew that if I could get the Avondale firefighters to be a part of a mentorship program, that it would have a long-lasting impact on our kids,” she said.
The program began with the Avondale Fire Department visiting the middle school and teaching the students about fire safety, followed by a meet and greet with the kids to build the mentor-student relationship.
Santana said the department loves to give back to the community and connect with the students as mentors.
He said because the firefighters come from different backgrounds — some from Avondale — being a mentor has been rewarding.
“A lot of our guys and girls who work for the department love giving back to the community,” he said.
The program had to pivot when the pandemic hit. Everything was moved online, and kids weren’t able to meet in person with their teachers, friends or mentors.
“This past year was either meeting the kids at their homes or doing Zooms with them,” Santana said. “We would bring them lunch and breakfast just to check on them and let them know that we’re thinking about them even during a pandemic.”
Linn said the mentors help students in all areas of life and school, whether it’s looking at grades or being a parental role model. She also said the mentors have been helpful to students as they return to in-person learning after a year of virtual school.
“They provide them with advice, so oftentimes the kids just need someone to listen to them and just give them that,” Linn said.
Faculty and educators select and recommend who should participate in the program on an in-need basis. Students are then paired with a firefighter based on personalities or background.
Linn said the program is expanding to other schools and departments, like the Goodyear and Evansville police departments.
“As a principal, I’m just extremely grateful for the Avondale Fire Department for the relationships that they have built with my kiddos,” Linn said. “They treat them like their own, and to me that meant the world, because I know that my kids have that extra support to help guide them in the right direction.”