A fire rekindled at a Detroit home and quickly became a giant blaze. Cortez Wilform was at the scene for the first time as a member of the Detroit Fire Department and, for a split second, he felt nervous. Just as quickly, training took over – training he started at Cody High School’s Medicine and Community Health Academy.
Cortez was a top member of Cody’s firefighter program, which is part of United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s College and Career Pathways work. After graduating high school in 2016, he joined the fire academy and earned his certification this fall.
“It helped a lot,” Cortez said of his high school training. “I already knew everything. It was like taking a class all over again. It was like exercising.”
Cortez is a prime example of what can happen when high school students are exposed to potential career fields.
“Our work gives students the opportunity to learn skills needed in a specific industry through work-based activities,” said Nicole McKinney, work based learning director at United Way for Southeastern Michigan.
“These opportunities better position students for employment once they graduate from high school.”
Cortez says his job can be busy at times but also has its quieter moments. He will never forget his first fire.
“It was crazy,” he said. “There was fire everywhere. I was nervous at first because it looked like a fire from a movie. It was scary at first, but once I started fighting the fire I had so much adrenaline going through me that I wasn’t thinking about it.”
Cortez said firefighting was not a career path he initially considered. He was concerned that medical training required by the academy would be too difficult for him, but his high school education prepared him well.
“It’s different, because I didn’t think I was going to do it because it was so hard and I didn’t really think I was going to finish it,” he said.
“It’s kind of unbelievable and different, because I didn’t really see it happening. The support United Way gave us was motivation for me to keep doing it.”
But he persevered, and he made it. Nicole said she’s energized when she hears stories like Cortez’s because it shows that the work we do is meaningful. Cortez serves as an inspiration to other students as they plan for their futures.
Firefighting isn’t the only career Cortez is pursuing. He plans to enter college for architectural engineering this summer. Firefighting provides enough flexibility that he will do both full time.
“Students need a plan for their lives and a way to become self-sufficient after they graduate. Our work puts them in that direction,” she said.
“Our program allows students to dream and see all the possibilities for them beyond high school.”