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CFA's special program for special kids: celebrating International Day of People with Disability
On a cloudy day in October 2013, eight of the shyest kids you’re likely to meet walked in to the Torquay Fire Station. Shoulders hunched; eyes on the floor, determined not to make contact with the four yellow-clad fire fighters who were equally apprehensive. Within four weeks, there’d be an impressive change in these kids and in the firefighters.
December 3rd is International Day of People with Disability. It is a United Nations sanctioned day that aims to promote an understanding of people with disability and encourage support for their dignity, rights and wellbeing.
Over the last two years, CFA volunteers from the Lara and Torquay fire brigades have helped some of our most vulnerable citizens increase their quality of life through the Volunteering with CFA Program, a simple and special initiative run in partnership with Nelson Park School in Geelong.
Volunteering with CFA is a four-week program developed and coordinated by Barwon South West Community Education Coordinator, Niki Habibis. Brigade volunteers are supported by Niki and Nelson Park School staff from to take special needs students through lessons specifically designed to give them a deeper understanding of fire safety practices.
"This program is invaluable" said Nelson Park teacher Marg Sheppard. "It gives the students a chance to learn how to react in emergency situations" she said.
But the program does much more than that. Nelson Park School in Geelong caters for students with mild intellectual disabilities ranging from physical and sensory impairments to social and emotional challenges. As opportunities to learn outside of the school are few, the Volunteeringwith CFA Program gives students a chance to get out into the community and learn in a unique and safe environment.
"The hands-on approach gives the kids a real taste of what it’s like to be a CFA volunteer. Importantly they learn qualities like teamwork, leadership, responsibility and confidence, just like every CFA volunteer" said Niki. "These kids have special needs but they’re more than capable of contributing" she said.
The program kicked off at Lara brigade and was delivered twice in Lara in 2012. Reflecting on his involvement, Brigade Captain Fred Grove touched on a range of benefits for the CFA and the students.
"Our brigade has been really active in programs like Fire Safe Kids and Brigades in Schools and this program seemed a natural extension. Personally, the experience was very moving and I also saw a change in my members. Some started off with a few biases and like the students from Nelson Park, a fair bit of anxiety. But they came out the other end better people as a result" Fred said. "The program is mutually beneficial and the success of the program is due in a large part to the commitment and dedication of brigade volunteers" he said.
The structured nature of the program helps the volunteers as much as it does the kids. Good planning ensures that students are taken through basic fire safety step-be-step with a tour of the brigade and an introduction to basic fire fighting skills in the first week. The kids are split into crews and mentored by two volunteers. Crew leaders are appointed and all the kids are given a complete set of turn-out gear and the transformation begins.
"It was amazing to see the immediate change in the kid’s confidence once they got their yellow gear on" said Torquay volunteer Louise Turner. "It was obvious from this moment that they’d rise to the challenge and the benefits would go way beyond fire safety" she said.
Each ensuing week, the students learn something new about fire and fire equipment, and the role of crew leader is rotated. In the final week they’re given an opportunity to apply what they’ve learned and demonstrate their new capabilities to new friends and family. One student helped his mum use a fire extinguisher for the first time. She commented that the family will feel safer at home now.
Barwon South West Regional Director, Bob Barry would like to see the program rolled-out across the region and the state. "These kinds of programs are a great bridge into the community" said Bob. "Not only is CFA serving the needs of our community and building the confidence of special needs kids, we’re giving our members a unique personal development experience. It’s an honour and a privilege for us to be part of this" he said.
As the CFA observes International Day of People with Disability, we congratulate the Lara and Torquay Brigades for their outstanding work and commitment to the program. This is one very simple and special way we can help remove all forms of discrimination against people with a disability and provide the life skills needed to be active, dignified and respected community members.