During the week of July 24-28, 15 teenage girls aged 15 to 19 had the opportunity to experience what it’s like to be a firefighter at Camp Ignite. The camp, offered by Mississauga Fire and Emergency Services (MFES) at the Garry W. Morden Centre in Mississauga, is designed to provide these young women with a taste of the different skills and experience required for a career in firefighting.
Now in its second year, the camp is led by Mississauga’s first female firefighter, Captain Shelli Varela. Varela, who joined MFES in 1994 and has risen through the ranks since that time, wanted the theme of this year’s camp to focus on what she believes is the cause for more girls not pursuing firefighting: overcoming limiting beliefs.
Varela refers to those “small, little voices we hear when we’re growing up” that try to convince us of what society deems to be normal or appropriate regarding careers, which in turn play a role in what we believe to be possible for ourselves. As a young woman of about 20, Varela assumed that she was destined for a career in artistry or journalism, simply because she had talent in those areas. “The world had labeled me as an artist, so as I grew older I pursued things that were in that lane. I was looking only inside that lane, and it had never occurred to me that being an artist was just a skill I had and not necessarily my identity.”
Varela learned about firefighting from a family friend who was a Toronto firefighter and realized through various discussions with him that she had a real passion for the career, as well as learning that she had a natural mechanical aptitude. At that time, approximately 27 years ago, at only 5’2”, she lacked the confidence needed to feel that she was “big enough, brave enough, strong enough, or smart enough” but felt reassured when the friend urged “There’s going to be a girl (in firefighting) one day. Why wouldn’t it be you?”
Varela wants the girls to feel empowered to choose to pursue and compete for whatever career path they feel passionate about, whether it’s firefighting or something else they may not have considered previously. Besides the empowerment element, the camp is intended to give the girls a “sampler platter” of hands-on firefighting skills. Managing gear, basic pump and ladder operations, aerial ladder climbs, auto extrication, securing hydrants and fighting simulated kitchen and car fires are among the many skills taught at the camp.
Varela is amazed by the transformation that she sees the in the participants as the camp progresses, especially the growth in confidence that she sees. “I want them to take away that anything is possible – everything is possible.”
For questions regarding Camp Ignite, please contact the City of Mississauga, Human Resources Department at 905-615-3200 x 5032.
Photo: Camp Ignite participants battle a car fire in a training exercise. (Courtesy of MFES)