Young Women's Fire Camp

Eugene, Oregon 

Sarah Medary, ICMA-CM, City Manager

Eugene Springfield Fire established the Young Women’s Fire Camp in 2010 at the urging of Fire Captain Jean Woodrich, who retired after 28 years of service. Recognizing the lack of female firefighters locally and nationally, Woodrich developed a five-day program for young women ages 16-19 that would expose them to firefighting as a career and help develop confidence and leadership skills. The camp uses hands-on activities to teach life skills such as team building, communication, and problem-solving. Activities include extinguishing live fires, learning emergency medical service skills, rappelling, self-defense, and vehicle extrication. Participants also engage in conversations about peer pressure, societal pressures, self-image, and general mental health and wel-lbeing.

A core tenet of the camp is that it be free of charge and accessible to all young women. Camp leaders ensure diversity of applicants and equal opportunities by reaching out to all local high schools, alternative schools, and community outreach programs. Funding comes from multiple divisions of the fire department and the local chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters. Local businesses have donated fire extinguishers, cars for extrication exercises, and internship opportunities. In addition to empowering young women, the camp provides examples of successful women and career opportunities in the fire service, which has a very low percentage of females. Camp also includes guest speakers who talk about their career experiences. Speakers have included the first female paratrooper in the United States, the first female circuit court judge of Douglas County, and female emergency room doctors, police officers, and leaders from local government—all of them supporting a diverse group of young women as they develop confidence and skills that will serve them in the future.

An additional benefit of the program is creating space for family relationships to grow. Camp graduation is an opportunity for mentors to encourage parents to listen more and push back less. Mentors have received letters of appreciation from parents of camp attendees who cite more engagement and communication at home. Camp mentors say that they learn just as much as those who attend. Through planning and organizing the camp, female facilitators learn to lead by example, communicate, and work as a team, and they have an opportunity to “pay it forward” as mentors. They also learn to adapt the camp to fit the needs of each group that attends, and they try to offer support that helps attendees have a successful and fulfilling week, whether the support is physical, mental, or emotional.

The camp also shows members of the community the importance of promoting and supporting programs that encourage young women. The relationships that are built with external partners grow each year as other organizations offer time and services that make the camp even more accessible and successful. The success of the Young Women’s Fire Camp will take years to measure, but its impact starts before the camp begins. The application includes an essay prompt that asks the applicant to write about her hero. By the end of the five-day program, the campers learn that they are more like their heroes than they expected, as they have overcome challenges and encouraged their peers to do the same.

A milestone for the program was reached in 2017, when the department hired its first camp graduate. A second graduate was hired in 2021. Many others have gone on to careers in firefighting, emergency services, and other public services such as military, police, and emergency relief work. Over the years, camp mentors have received numerous emails from graduates noting that they would not have explored these opportunities without the camp experience.