Shortly after the terrorist attacks of 2001 a group of public safety and education leaders in six cities began working with former U.S. Sen. John Breaux "to create a national program to connect middle and high school students with mentors from first responder, public health, and Homeland Security services to help keep them, and their families, safe and smart." One of those cities was Alexandria.
That effort has grown into the "GO-FIRST FOUNDATION." On Sept. 7, at the Alexandria Fire Department Training Center, the foundation brought together 14 students from seven locations throughout the nation to participate in the first "GO-FIRST National Camp."
Over the succeeding four days, under the leadership of Captain Rodney Masser, Marine Operations, Alexandria Fire Department, in conjunction with GO-FIRST leaders from cities represented within the group, and Noel Gould, Esq., co-founder and president, GO-FIRST Foundation, the students participated in a series of activities designed to "connect, inspire and energize" them with the "values, skills, sciences, technologies and tactical athletics" as found in those who have chosen security vocations for their life mission.
"The students are immersed in the service themes, talents and tools of fire, EMS, marine safety, National Guard, wilderness search and rescue, U.S. Coast Guard, nursing, CSI, and global disaster response and relief," said Gould, who served as Breaux's chief-of-staff in the U.S. Senate.
"We now have over 25,000 young people involved in this program ranging in age from 8 to 18." It was initiated immediately following the terrorist attacks.
SINCE ITS INCEPTION, Breaux has been joined by former senators Ted Stevens, Daniel Inouye, and Judd Gregg. In addition to Alexandria, public safety leaders from Anchorage, Ala.; Honolulu, Hawaii; Chicago, Ill.; Long Beach, N.Y.; Galveston, Texas; Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Long Beach and Los Angeles County, Calif.; Nashua and Portsmouth, N.H.; Great Falls, Va.; and Washington, D.C., have come on board, plus international partners in Mexico, Chile and Santiago.
"It's a great opportunity for us to host this first National Camp. How fitting it is that on this particular day we can celebrate what young people are doing to explore the professions of public service," said Alexandria Fire Chief Gary Mesaris during closing ceremonies aboard The Cherry Blossom Sept. 11, 2006.
By then the words of Alexandria City Manager James Hartmann, a U.S. Coast Guard veteran, spoken during their opening ceremonies four days earlier had tangible meaning. "You are going to get to do some things that many young people don't ever get to do. The training and instruction you will receive over the next several days will set you apart," he said.
This initial contingent of GO-FIRST National Camp participants came from Chicago, Hawaii, Nashua, California's Long Beach, Washington, D.C., Galveston, and Alexandria. "We asked local program leaders to pick students based on merit and how they have performed in local programs," Gould explained.
"We do not require that students have made a decision to go into first responder professions. We are more interested in their potential for community leadership and that they exemplify the values of first responders," he said. That was evident from students from Galludet University who had others using some basic sign language by the end of camp.
Upon their return home they will serve as GO-FIRST ambassadors, hopefully inspiring others to participate in the program. "They will go to schools and civic groups to relate what they have learned by attending this National Camp," Gould said.
"This was a huge success. The blending of their various cultures was amazing. They came away with a real team spirit. You know it’s a success when they don't want to leave and ask when it’s being held next year," said Masser, who also helps lead local camps in Alaska and New Hampshire.
His assessment was buttressed by several participants closing night. "What I learned I'm putting in my brain to use when it’s needed in critical situations," said Ricky Garza, 15, from Galveston.
"This really got me to thinking about going into the Coast Guard. I was really impressed with how they save people in very dangerous situations," said 14-year-old Kelsey Rodriguez of Nashua.
"I plan to become a professional lifeguard in Hawaii," said Kai MaNa Beauford, 17, from Makaha, Hawaii.
Many of the program's leaders have or do serve as professional life guards such as Major Vic Maceo, beach patrol director, Galveston Sheriffs Department. All were Junior Life Guards at one time in their lives, according to Gould, who also served in that role.
HIGHLIGHTING THE MESSAGE of "giving back to help others," the speaker at the closing ceremony was Emily Windham, M.D., who practices medicine in Leonardstown, Md. In 2005 she spent nine weeks volunteering her medical expertise with Project HOPE in aiding the victims of the Indonesian tsunami.
"That was an experience I will never forget. The devastation left by the wave was unimaginable. But, the aid we were able to bring to the residents was truly a mission of life," she said. "The emphasis of Project HOPE is service to others."
Windham traveled to Indonesia aboard Project HOPE's USS Mercy which is berthed on the West Coast. The students had spent their final day in Baltimore Harbor visiting and learning aboard the USS Comfort, the east coast counterpart.
Although this was the initial national camp, similar training camps are conducted by local GO-FIRST Foundation groups. Additionally, “experimental ‘Look, Learn, Do’ camps and special DVD/CD packages and online multimedia programs" are used on a regular basis in classrooms, youth programs and community organizations, according to Gould.
"Leadership teams of students and mentors from participating cities take turns in going to other cities' camps to further the process of building a global learning community that enables students from all the programs to keep in contact," Gould said.
That blending of cultures and regions, referred to by Masser, was symbolically demonstrated the first night of National Camp when Matt Miller, training Lieutenant, Life Guard Services Division, Honolulu, and an EMT for a private ambulance service, introduced the group to his state's custom of "mixing of the waters."
Using a wooden, hand-carved bowl he had a representative of each group add a sample of water they had brought from their home area. That was mixed with sand and remained in the bowl until the camp's conclusion. The emotions expressed by the students for one another and their mentors on the Cherry Blossom the night of Sept. 11, 2006 will last much longer.