Verdugo Fire Academy graduation

Donshay Luke received the community service award during the Verdugo Fire Academy Class XVI graduation ceremony at Glendale College on Saturday, January 4, 2014. (Raul Roa / Staff Photographer / January 4, 2014)

During training, instructor Robert Sepulveda had each Verdugo Fire Academy cadet bring a picture of a loved one to class.

When times got tough and the cadets thought about giving up, he'd ask them to look at the picture, and imagine their loved one was the person who needed to be saved from a burning building.

For Ryan Santos, it was his 11-year-old brother Matthew.

For Randy Rivera, it was his younger sisters.

Rivera would take one look at the picture, and “the push-ups started doing themselves.”

Santos and Rivera are among the 41 cadets who graduated from the academy Saturday after an intensive yearlong training program, which officials compared to a “miniature boot camp.”

The ceremony was dedicated to the 19 Arizona “hotshots” killed in June in the Yarnell Hill wildfire.

The 39 men and two women who graduated, now trained and state certified to become firefighters, range in age from their late teens to their 30s, officials said. The group is the 16th class to graduate from the Glendale academy.

“Not only do they learn the skills to become firefighters, but they learn leadership, character, integrity — skills that will just help them in life,” said academy Fire Chief Sam DiGiovanna.

“I see kids come in on the first day at orientation, and they are just wide-eyed and nervous…at end of graduation, I see some of most confident, disciplined, well-organized individuals,” he added.

Not everyone makes it through the physical and academic demands of the program. The academy, which is sponsored by the Glendale Fire Department, started with more than 50 participants last January.

This year marked cadet Elena Lozano's second time going through the academy — she sought to graduate last year only to “fall short at the last minute,” she said.

“A year of sweat, grit, injuries and hard work, and it wasn't enough,” she said.

This year, not only did she graduate, but she was one of three cadets to speak before her class at her graduation ceremony, which was held at Glendale Community College.

“To my fellow classmates, this is only the beginning,” she said.

Throughout the year, the class met three times a week for academic and physical training, including practicing with ladders, live fires, hazardous materials, and performing vehicle extrication, DiGiovanna said.

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Follow Alene Tchekmedyian on Google+ and on Twitter: @atchek.


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