Ariz. program gives young girls glimpse into law enforcement, fire careers

More than 30 girls received hands-on instruction and learned how to use equipment that police and fire use every day


By Josh Ortega
East Valley Tribune

MESA, Ariz. — The seventh annual Aspire Academy continued to give high school girls an opportunity to see what a career in public safety looks like.

The girls spent four days, three nights at the Mesa Public Safety Training Facility on N. 40th Street, experiencing some of what goes into a career as a first responder.

Mesa Fire & Medical Department Deputy Chief Michelle Denton and Mesa Police Department Lt. Scott Kim started the program seven years ago to give high school girls a glimpse into the field before they enter it.

Scott said the mission lies in the name of the program.

"We're trying to inspire them," Scott said. "So, 'aspire' to do whatever it is you want to do."

More than 30 girls from around the East Valley received hands-on instruction and learned how to use the same equipment that police and fire use every day.

"If this is a career that they want to pursue, we wanted to let them know that they can," Scott said.

Some of that instruction included trying their hand at Mesa Police's VirTra firearm training simulator and strapping on Mesa Fire's Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus/turnout gear.

"I think they get a different perspective," Scott said, "That it is very difficult."

Denton has spent 18 years as a firefighter and said the "humbling" experience helps give the girls a new appreciation for what police officers and firefighters endure.

But that experience also gives the girls a heaping dose of confidence in their ability to work in a male-dominated profession — something Denton said she learned the hard way.

"It's always going to be challenging because it is a very male-dominated career in general," Denton said. "But I think you know, that getting into it."

The girls got to sit in a Crown Victoria as a tactical driving instructor squealed the tires and whips the cruiser around the driving course and overcome any fear of heights as they rappelled down a seven-story tower.

But Scott, Denton and the rest of the academy staff also want to instill in them social awareness, confidence, conduct, professionalism, and teamwork that it takes to not only become a police officer or firefighter, but a good person.

Denton said the program encourages the girls to have self-confidence and ignore the naysayers that try to detract them from their goals.

"They have to believe in themselves," Denton said. "They can't listen to what other people tell them they can or cannot do."

Scott said she also wants the girls to walk away with a sense of responsibility in their actions and that everything they do has consequences.

"The decisions that you make everyday matter," Scott said. "Even if it seems like a small decision; all those decisions matter."

Scott has spent more than 20 years in law enforcement and said she had mentors growing up but none in public safety.

"We offer ourselves as mentors for these girls as they move on," Scott said. "It's something I never had as a high school-aged kid."

Denton said the first couple years of the program they had to recruit participants.

But the program has grown in popularity over the years for both participants and the staff on site, with many students wanting to return and become instructors the following year.

In March 2020, Denton said they almost didn't have an academy with talks of businesses shutting down due to the pandemic.

"We actually got that camp in right before everything in the country shut down," Denton said. "A week later, we would not have had it."

With precautions in place including washing hands and wearing masks, Denton said nobody got sick.

This year the academy had 53 applicants but only accepted 40 and only 33 arrived on the first day. That's something Denton said she's come expect with the timing of the event.

The academy brought in personnel from 25 departments across the Valley as well as the FBI, ATF and Border Patrol on a variety of topics including wellness and nutrition, fire prevention, drug safety, social media, and human trafficking.

For Tempe Police Det. Natalie Barela, this year's academy served as "validation" for why she chose this profession.

Barela has served with Tempe PD for more than seven years, including as the school resource officer at McClintock High School.

In 2017, Barela helped student Angeliese Khoury attend the course to show her own true potential.

Five years later, Khoury returned to the academy as a Uniform Crime Report coding specialist with Phoenix Police.

Khoury said the academy challenged her physically and mentally as well as opened her eyes to what she's truly passionate about: helping the community.

"The only reason I found my love for data research and things like that was through this academy," Khoury said.

Now, Khoury attends Arizona State University, where she's studying to earn her bachelor's in criminology and criminal justice.

Khoury said she realized that police work means more than just the physical when she realized the critical work behind the scenes.

Though the physical differences make police work male dominated, Khoury said mentally she can do the same work as the men and her only barrier remained her own mind.

"You're only setting limits on your own mind," Khoury said. "No one else is setting them."

Now, that realization looks to continue this year with the next group of girls.

Gizzelle Sells, a junior at McClintock High School in Tempe, said she originally wanted to be a real estate agent but will now consider a career in public safety.

"They look really cool and I want to be them," Sells said.

Sells said she initially didn't want to attend but recommends any girl who's interested to do so, regardless of their peers.

"I didn't want to do it unless someone else is going to do it," Sells said. "So, I just took a leap of faith and did it."

Jazz Kraus, a sophomore at American Leadership Academy Ironwood in Queen Creek, said she wanted to learn about becoming a firefighter and others should revel in opportunities like this, regardless of the fear.

"I would say if you had the opportunity for anything, even though you were scared to do it, I would still go because this has been a turnout," Kraus said.

Quincy Webb, a sophomore at Casteel High School in Queen Creek, said she has learned some stuff about the career from her stepdad, who works at the Gilbert Fire Department, and she now sees the ladies as role models and forces to be reckoned with.

"You don't want to mess with them," Webb said. "They're cool."

Webb said she learned that teens shouldn't let fear hold them back from their dreams.

"If you want to do something, try it out," she said.

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