Halifax Heroes: Empowering girls by sparking interests in emergency services
Andréa Speranza founded Camp Courage in 2006 to inspire young women to consider careers in firefighting, policing and paramedicine.
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When firefighter Andréa Speranza founded Camp Courage 11 years ago, she couldn’t have imagined the impact her initiative would have on the lives of the girls it would touch.
Speranza’s passion for emergency services and firefighting was ignited when she was still a young child.
“I was a little adventurous person when I was a kid. I jumped off the shed and I landed on a board with nails on it and the fire department had to come and pry it out of my foot, and then I wiped out on my bike and the brake lever got stuck in my leg so the fire department had to come and cut it out,” she recalled.
“As a kid I always wanted to be Superman. But I was older when all of these injuries happened to me and I was much wiser. When they were cutting that brake lever out of my thigh, I thought that I can’t be Superman anymore. But I can be a fireman.”
Although the fascination and passion never left her, as she got older Speranza said society told her ‘No, you’re not going to do that.’
“My dream was to be a firefighter, but as I went through school my family, my teachers, my friends all just thought that it was as if I was telling them I wanted to fly like Superman,” she said.
“It was just so far out there it wasn’t even a possibility.”
So she became a lifeguard, volunteered, taught first aid and CPR. She eventually ended up volunteering as a firefighter for five years before becoming a career firefighter in 2000.
Today, she’s a captain working for Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency Services.
Besides her job, Speranza’s other passion is Camp Courage, the initiative she founded in 2006.
The extensive eight-day camp is designed to introduce young women between the ages of 15 and 19 to all three emergency services. The hope is some are inspired enough to consider pursuing careers in policing, paramedicine or firefighting.
“When we would go to school events and try to promote firefighting as a career, everybody thought I was administrative staff. Nobody thought I was a firefighter,” Speranza recalled.
“I felt and I still feel that if you don’t experience something, if you don’t have a friend or relative or neighbour or somebody in that profession, youth are not going to choose those professions. I think you have to expose them to it.”
Speranza said there is no camp in the world like Camp Courage, offering hands-on experience of all three emergency services. She’s currently working towards a long-term goal of developing a national program.
“The whole idea is to empower these young ladies and allow them to physically feel the demands placed on a police officer, a firefighter, a paramedic. So we introduce them to the best of all three trades,” she said.
“They get to deliver mechanical babies and give IVs and intubate mannequins, and then they get to shoot guns. They get to see police dogs, police horses, all the specialty teams. They learn self defence, they put out fires, they get to rappel, they get to zip line, cut roofs off cars. Extremely empowering and it’s all the stuff we do.”
Since 2006, 60 young women who participated in the camp have gone on to pursue careers in emergency services. Speranza said that’s 33 per cent of the camp’s graduates.
“When I went through I didn’t really have a mentor, somebody just like me. There were no pictures of female firefighters, no newspaper articles or any TV shows with female firefighters in them,” she said.
“Now they can see us and we’re just like them.”
The camp is currently running every second year, because it takes one year to fundraise enough to put on one camp. Although it’s free, potential participants must submit an essay.
Some start planning to attend up to five years in advance.
“It’s very important for me that it be free. I don’t think a child’s potential should be limited by their parental circumstances,” Speranza said.
Speranza became a firefighter and enjoys all three emergency services because she likes helping people. It’s why she was a volunteer firefighter for five years.
She said she didn’t think it could get any better than being paid to do what makes her happy.
“I thought it was awesome that I could help all of these people in my role in the fire service but now that I have the camp, I can help hundreds of other people eventually and they can help all these extra people so the ripple effect is far grander,” she said.
“When I go to a call and there’s one of the girls that went through the camp and they’re a police officer or a firefighter or a paramedic and we’re working on a call together? It’s the most fantastic thing ever.”