SJRC Fire Academy pays it forward with scholarship

Members of the most recent class are paying it forward to incoming students.|

The next time you call 911, the firefighter who responds might be someone you helped get through school.

That’s one way to think about what a donation to the next Santa Rosa Junior College Fire Academy might mean. The recently graduated class has started a scholarship fund to help students raise the money to attend the next academy, which costs about $3,000 per student. Their goal is to raise $10,000. They’ve raised about $5,000 so far.

“It’s great that these guys took to heart what we teach, which is you’re there for the public, not for yourself,’ ’’ said Kim Thompson, fire academy coordinator, who retired from Cal Fire after 37 years and began teaching a year later. “It’s teamwork.“

The 99th academy forged a special bond and accomplished great physical and mental feats before graduating April 30, said Fire Academy Director Ken Sebastiani.

First of all, they were only the second class in the history of the academy to graduate all 40 members of the class together. There are 10 squads of four people in each academy, which is held twice a year.

Second, the students in the 99th scored the highest on the firefighters’ physical test in academy history, including one student who beat the record by almost 20 seconds. Physical fitness instructor Justin McNulty started a permanent “Sub8” plaque, posting the names of the three students who had test times below 8 minutes, expecting to add more names in the future.

In addition, one member of the class received an academic award for “setting a record for achieving the best grade-point average of all the classes for as long as we’ve been keeping track,” Sebastiani said.

The academy lasts about a semester and a half, or 585 hours. Words like “grueling” and “arduous” are used to describe the training that goes on every day for at least eight hours and sometimes stretches to 12 or 13.

In addition, the 99th had to contend with the coronavirus pandemic, with college administrators having to seek permission from the state and the county to have the face-to-face classes inside and outdoors. Not only did they follow protocols of recording their temperatures and washing their hands, they had to disinfect equipment several times a day.

It’s hard to work a job while taking all-day classes, which involve dozens of tests and quizzes following rigorous physical activities focused on learning the skills of firefighting. Yet it’s sometimes difficult for students to afford the equipment and tuition without doing that.

Class administrators said strong student leaders had a lot to do with the 99th’s success and the decision to seek funds for a scholarship “to pay it forward.”

Class leader Nick Klimenko, 26, of Petaluma, is featured in a video he and other leaders created to promote the scholarship for the incoming academy in July.

Klimenko, who has five associate of science degrees from SRJC, had a chance for a soccer scholarship at UC Davis, but tore his ACL during the first practice.

He decided to stay in school, and earned degrees in fire technology, natural sciences, psychology, preallied health (a prerequisite for becoming a paramedic) and kinesiology.

Wanting to be challenged physically and mentally, he started volunteering at the fire academy. Once he was accepted, he was chosen as class leader and he and other leaders got together and vowed with other members to graduate all 40 in April. Their class motto: “Unity is Strength.”

“It was very stressful,” Klimenko said. “You had to pass what seemed like hundreds of tests and you only get one second chance. If you don’t pass, you’re out.”

The students achieved their collective goal of graduating together by developing support systems, said Jerimiah Mahan, assistant academy leader.

“One student was showing up late,” he said. “That is very much not OK in fire service. So we set up a system where he had to text us every day at 6:30 a.m. And if he didn’t, we knew we had to call him or go over there and bang on the door.”

Klimenko plans to become a firefighter-paramedic and has nearly earned a bachelor of science degree in fire administration online. He starts paramedic school in January.

Mahan, 31, a former personal trainer, said he decided he wanted to help people more in his career. He also enjoyed entering physical competitions. Fire service nicely combined those skills.

“Now I get to hurry up and put out fires and help people back in their beds,” Mahan said.

To be able to afford to attend the academy, he said he had to save up money for months, quit his job and move home with his mother, whose house is between Occidental and Sebastopol. Now that he’s graduated, he’s working as a volunteer firefighter for the Graton Fire Department, which pays him a stipend. He is applying for full-time positions.

Tyler Neiburger, 30, a squad leader, was initially interested in the restaurant business when he moved to St. Helena a few years ago from Illinois. He also decided he wanted to do more to help people, and became acquainted with members of the St. Helena Fire Department. He liked what he saw. The department ended up sponsoring him for the academy, even giving him a truck to drive to Santa Rosa and back daily.

“That’s why I wanted to give back,” he said of the scholarship effort. “To pay forward what had been done for me.”

Neiburger works part time for the St. Helena department.

He said the three leaders were chatting one day about how hard it was for some class members to attend the academy because of financial issues about a month before they graduated.

“This is a big burden,” Neiburger said. “This is something we could do to give them a cushion so they can achieve their goals.”

The three approached Thompson and Sebastiani, telling them they would handle all the details. The two set them up with an appointment with SRJC Foundation Director Sarah Laggos, who created a foundation scholarship.

“The 99th Fire Academy class is so impressive,” Laggos said. “Their legacy simply could have been their own personal success and the success of their class. Instead, they are paying forward their success by reaching back to help an incoming student and establishing a legacy of support for future classes.”

The leaders created a video that they shared on social media, asking for donations, which must be in by mid-June. Now they hope the next academy, which starts in July, will give back to the next class the same way.

To donate to the scholarship fund for the incoming 100th academy class, go to

To apply for a spot in the academy, go to

Once students are accepted to the academy, they will be able to apply for a scholarship under “scholarships” on the academy website.

You can reach Staff Writer Kathleen Coates at

Kathleen Coates

Windsor and Cloverdale, The Press Democrat 

As someone who grew up in a small town, I enjoy covering what's happening in Windsor and Cloverdale, which are growing in their own unique ways.  I delve into issues by getting to know people and finding out what’s going on in the community. I also pay attention to animal welfare and other issues that affect Sonoma County.

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