Orange County firefighters overcome life's challenges to graduate

For Shawn Berg, Friday's firefighter graduation ceremony was a major milestone. "I can't explain how amazing and how lucky I feel. It's like if you bought the mega-millions ticket, and won the grand jackpot," he said.

It was bigger for Berg than most; he grew up on the streets. "We bounced from hotel to hotel, bus stop sometimes, behind trees in a tent. Making ends meet by panhandling over on I-Drive, walking with my mother all day."

Berg luckily got involved with a free aquatics league in the area, which led him to find a mentor who gave him the opportunity find a better life. "Really showed me what it meant to be a man, to provide for my family, showed me how to be a normal person, other than begging on the streets and trying to make ends meet by ripping the next person off," he said.

That led Berg to Valencia College and, ultimately, Orange County's non-certified firefighter program, where the county pays for your firefighting and lifesaving education. "I think it's an opportunity that not many people can afford to go through, we try and even the playing field by sponsoring people to go through," said OCFR Lt. Jamal Afrifa.

For each class, about 500 people apply to the non-certified program. At the end, only 25 graduated, people like Berg, and Cydney Niedermeyer, a former professional soccer player who lost her father when she was young and whose mother was saved by first responders after a life-threatening car accident.

Orange County typically holds four of these graduations per year. Anyone interested can apply on the Orange County Fire Rescue's website. Niedermeyer said the program had given her a chance to save lives. "It's kind of surreal. We've been through this process and it's taken about eight or nine months for some of us. To be here passing all the physical tests, the skills test, it just doesn't feel real."