Jason Barco and Ivan Villalobos spent their formative years in the gym at Saint Augustine’s School in Hartford’s South End. Both were coming of age during a particularly turbulent time in Hartford’s history, and both found a safe haven at COMPASS. Back then, the organization was little more than a recreation program – open from afternoon until late evening – but under the watchful eye of current COMPASS CEO Robert Pawloski, the program provided the structure, guidance, and support that they needed.

In this COMPASS Conversation, we catch up with two former COMPASS youth who now serve their hometown as Lieutenants in the Hartford Fire Department.

What’s a typical day in the life of a Hartford Firefighter?

Ivan: We work on 24-hour shifts, sometimes more if you’re doing over time. Typically, we train two hours a day or more, and that’s every day. There’s so much to know because we get called to everything – whether it’s a fire, or a medical call, or a hazardous materials situation. When we’re not training, we’re responding to calls. It’s about 12-15 calls a day, and when we’re not on calls, we do all the maintenance on grounds.

Growing up, what did you aspire to be?

Jason: I aspired to be me {laughs}. No really – I just wanted to be the best version of myself.

Ivan: I hoped to be a scientist. I went to the University of Rhode Island and studied molecular biology. I had to take care of other priorities after I graduated, and that led to a career with the Hartford Fire Department – which I love, so it all worked out.

Describe how you came to be involved in COMPASS:

Ivan: Growing up, my mom was involved in everything: she was on the Hartford Board of Education and worked with various community groups. I think I first heard about the youth center from her. Bob eventually hired me as one of the youth counselors. Back then, it was really simple. We offered basketball, a few computer classes, and some other recreation activities, but it really was the place to be if you were a kid in Hartford.

Jason:  I joined when I was 12 years old, I was living in the South End of Hartford – honestly, I got involved to keep me off the streets. I just wanted to play basketball, and that was the best place I could go. I would never get in trouble, it was my safe haven.

What did you value most about your experience at COMPASS?

Jason: Back then, COMPASS provided structure and safety. The ‘90s were crazy in Hartford, particularly with the gangs, that it sometimes felt like life or death. Even as a kid, you were never sure how a situation would play out depending on where you were or who you were with. The youth center was a place that we never had to worry – we could just have fun, and be kids.

Ivan: I learned a lot from the example that Bob set. He was a leader, he held us to high standards, and never accepted excuses. We needed that guidance.

What’s the best advice you would give to kids today?

Jason: Everything’s going to be okay. In life, you don’t own it, you can’t control it, so whatever happens, make the best of it.

I’m living proof of that. I fought all the time when I was little. I was the biggest kid my age, so I was constantly getting into fights with older kids, and getting kicked out of school for it.  I definitely wouldn’t recommend it {laughs}, but the point is, even when everyone else was writing me off, I never got down on myself and I kept moving forward.

If you could thank a former teacher, who would it be and why?

Ivan: Mrs. Hayes-Matthews, my high school AP Biology teacher. She cared about us so much and really wanted us to succeed. I’m not sure how many of us passed the exam, but her commitment was unbelievable.

Jason: Probably my high school guidance counselor, because he painted a realistic picture about college debt, and about getting into a career. Don’t get me wrong: college is a great thing, but I appreciate how forthright he was with me about some of the longer term consequences of student debt, especially if you don’t have a clear plan – which I didn’t at the time.

What’s the most challenging aspect of being a firefighter? What’s the most gratifying?

Jason: For me, it’s one and the same. The tough part can be dealing with some of the personalities and situations, but that really is the best part, too.

Ivan: That’s easy – the best part of this job is helping people. The tough part is not always being able to.

By: Clare Timmis
Photo Credit: Paul Shoul