Ten teens dressed in white button-down shirts and black pants holding up certificates in front of a Richmond Fire truck

First Youth Public Safety Academy Class Graduates

Ten teens dressed in white button-down shirts and black pants holding up certificates in front of a Richmond Fire truck

These are among the 18 students who completed 64 hours of training to become the first graduating class of the Youth Public Safety Academy on June 29 in Richmond. (Ana Tellez-Witrago / Richmond Pulse)

By Ana Tellez-Witrago 

A former police officer who now teaches at the high school she attended created the Youth Public Safety Academy to give high schoolers training and mentorship from Richmond first responders. The first graduating class walked the stage June 29. 

Carmen Santana, a Richmond High alumna, former Richmond Police officer, and current Richmond High teacher, partnered with local public safety departments to create the Youth Public Safety Academy. Participating high school students undergo an eight-day crash course in physical, self-defense, law and basic training and graduate with a CPR certification. The instructors are Richmond emergency medical services providers, firefighters and police officers, who volunteer to mentor the youth during and after the program.

“I am doing this to be that mentor that I needed when I was in high school. As a teacher, I noticed that many of these kids haven’t thought of goals for the next year or what they want after high school,” said Santana. “Our goal is to teach them life skills that they are going to need in any job: time management, discipline, accountability, responsibility and respect.”

Santana said there is a lack of resources and mentorships specifically for minority groups, which can make young people in these groups feel like there aren’t opportunities for them. She saw this as a police officer.

“Out of 187 officers, 15 were women, and out of those 15, only three were Latinas. The same thing happens with sexism,” she said. “Some people say women can’t do these jobs. There are women firefighters, doctors, police officers and military personnel. But we don’t see it enough, so the youth don’t see it as a possibility.”

According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, mentoring youth “can help support the positive development of youth. Mentoring has been shown to improve self-esteem, academic achievement, and peer relationships and reduce drug use, aggression, depressive symptoms, and delinquent acts.” Although many youths receive mentoring, “many more do not.” Additionally, quality mentorship has even greater “impacts on youth outcomes.”

“My goal is to place these kids with the right mentorship for their goals that will help them follow any profession that they choose. If we start now, we can guide youth to better positions and make them great leaders.”

At the graduation, it didn’t seem like the students had only received 64 hours of training. Uniformed and disciplined, they marched as one to and from their seats, only smiling to the audience of family and public safety personnel as they received their certificates.

“These kids were shook. They were startled. They had no idea what they got themselves into, and I didn’t know what I got myself into. I saw a big challenge with these kids,” said mentor Adam Ramirez, Richmond Fire Department’s Firefighter of the Year.

The academy began with 28 students, according to Ramirez. Of those, 18 graduated.

“The training is not for everyone, but they were able to accomplish this through hard work and sacrifice,” he said.

Daniel Carlos Cuellar, a 16-year-old high school senior, was one of the graduates.

“Honestly, it was really hard, but it taught me to just keep on pushing. They did push me to failure, but they also kept encouraging me to keep going. It helped me mentally and physically,” he said.

He joined the academy because he is interested in working in the criminal justice field.

“It has been one of my dreams since I was in elementary school. This program helped me gain resources and have a better understanding of what I am willing to do in the future to pursue it,” he said. “I gained a mentor, and I appreciate all the advice they are giving me. I know I can come to them for any questions I have.”

Sofia Pereda Zanni, a 16-year-old incoming senior, learned about the program through her brother. She was very interested when she learned that she would train and receive a CPR certification.

“I was unsure about public safety at first, but this program showed me I could lean more towards medical or EMT,” she said. (EMT is short for emergency medical technician.)

The experience was somewhat familiar to Rene Cea, an incoming high school senior, who learned about the program from Ramirez.

“Coming into this program, I had already had some basic training from attending the Richmond Youth Academy for firefighter cadets,” Cea said.

The familiarity did not make the experience easy, however.

“It is no joke when I say they pushed me to blood sweat and tears. I threw up multiple times in this program; I sweated, cried and bled from different body parts, but it was definitely something that changed me,” Cea said. “I realized that I am able to push my limits if I work hard enough. It showed me a lot about myself as a person.”

Leonardo Daniel Alvarez, an 18-year-old recent high school graduate, said this program teaches students to build leadership skills and discipline. He and Cea said they will pursue careers as firefighters.

Ed Medina, retired Richmond deputy police chief and director of operations of the academy said, “The students come in and they are really nervous. They are not sure what is going on; they are used to the classroom environment. But with the direct approach, especially from Carmen Santana, they learn very quickly that their job is to participate, to speak up, and slowly but surely start to work as a team. They gain confidence in themselves that they can then apply to any career.”  

This was the first graduation of the Youth Public Safety Academy, but Santana hopes it won’t be the last. She wants to get more funding and bring in additional mentors to expand it to all the high schools in the district.

Valerie Estrada of the Richmond After School Program, who helped coordinate with YPSA, said, “There are great things happening at Richmond High. We are also coordinating with other career leaders to come and expose students to the many career possibilities.”

For the Record: Two of the graduates’ names were rendered incorrectly in an earlier version of this story. They are now written correctly: Daniel Carlos Cuellar and Sofia Pereda Zanni.

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