Over the years we have been so honored to share posts about how many Explorer Programs and young men and women we have had the pleasure of helping. For us, it’s a full-circle experience of giving, helping, teaching, and loving. The vision for the Annual Kevin Woyjeck Explorers for Life Association Fishing Derby is all about celebrating Kevin’s birthday on September 5th. The tragic loss turned into a moment of clarity. Kevin loved fishing, and having fun and he was always grateful for the mentors he had in his life, especially within the Explorer program. The birth of the Fishing Derby has become our number one fund-raiser because of Kevin. So, here we are, 10 years later and we have so many amazing stories to tell about how the Kevin Woyjeck Explorers for Life Association has opened doors for new generations of first responders. Meet Hairo Espinoza! His story warms our hearts and his determination and perseverance make us so very proud. Hairo is a 2015 Paramount High School graduate and he was passionate about playing baseball (still is) and roots for the Seattle Mariners! At 15, his cousin, William Rodriguez, started questioning him about what he wanted to do with his life.
William was part of the Explorer Program at Los Angeles County Fire Station #54 in the City of Southgate and invited Hairo to join him at one of their Sunday tryouts. Hairo was pumped and already knew he wanted to return the following Sunday. “It was military-style training”, said Espinoza. “Yes sir, no sir, extreme workouts, learning fire-fighting skills, hose lay evolutions, ladder techniques, salvage operations, proper use of firefighting tools and equipment, breathing apparatus techniques, and teamwork.” He worked hard and passed the tryouts and joined the Explorer program in 2012- the beginning of, yes, a 10-year journey. We often get asked a lot about the function and importance of Explorer programs across the country. Unless your family or friends are involved in the life of a first responder, it’s hard to see how the grind to become one can be a lonely and frustrating process. Espinoza attributes his success to his mentors and family.
“Captain Kevin Ysais from Station #41, Firefighter Dragatto from Station #16, and retired Captain Joe Woyjeck all played a role in encouraging me, pushing me, and helping me take my career to the next level,” Hairo says. “My mom and dad, Hugo and Sanjuana, and two sisters have always been supportive and that means a lot,” he added. While going to high school, Hairo continued the Explorer program on weekends which also included community service and volunteer work, and graduated in 2012. Unfortunately, he was forced to choose between baseball and the Explorer Academy. He went on to join the Academy in 2014 and did ride-alongs with Stations #41 in Willowbrook, #16 in Watts, and #164 in Huntington Park. Hairo went on to graduate from the Wildland Fire Academy in 2018 and then in 2020 graduated with Class 154 from the grueling 6-week El Camino Fire Academy. “It’s Friday-Sunday training, you sleep on cots, and do drills all day. It’s a demanding program that tests you,” he explained. “The Explorer Program and Academy are what set the foundation for where I am today”, Espinoza says. “If it wasn’t for Joe and Anna and the Kevin Woyjeck Explorers for Life Association, I wouldn’t have been able to have this opportunity. Gear is crazy expensive and so was participating in all the additional academies. The Association does an amazing job giving everyone who wants to embark on this journey a chance. I am super grateful,” he added.
Hairo was determined to become a firefighter. Competition, expectations, and challenges were fierce. He took classes at Rio Hondo College to meet his Fire Tech requirements and at the same time joined the South Dakota Wildland crew in Rapid City, South Dakota, which happens to be the same crew Kevin worked on the season before he started with the ill-fated Granite Mountain Hotshot crew. Hairo served 3 wildland fire seasons (2018-2020). He did online courses during and off-season. He has Joe to thank for connecting him with this crew. “He always believed in me,” Hairo says. He started applying for jobs in Washington, Las Vegas, Sacramento, San Francisco, Montana and Sioux Falls, and Oregon. “Joe was always so generous to give his time to help me with references and contacts. “When the LACoFD opened its’ application process, I was accepted and went through the Department’s Academy, studied so hard and passed in 2021, moved out of probation in 2022, and by the grace of God, I became a firefighter at Station 164 in Huntington Park this last December, 10 years after my first Sunday at the Explorer Program. I love it here! It’s a big station with a Fire Engine and a Fire Truck allowing me to keep learning everything I need to know to become the best firefighter I can be. I work with 11 hard-working guys in a fun atmosphere”.
Hairo loved baseball and had dreams of playing the game after high school. We think he made it to the Bigs! When asked about the similarities between his love of baseball and firefighting, he said there are tons, “But, what I love about being a firefighter is that I am doing something good in society. It’s not selfish. And, I hope my efforts have a domino effect as I serve others.” It’s amazing to sit and think about Hairo’s journey and all he sacrificed to be where he is today – and, he’s not done! He plans on attending Paramedic School and wants to serve as a firefighter/medic at a big station one day and maybe retire as an Engineer.
When we asked Hairo what advice he would give cadets striving to be a first responder, he simply said, “The one that doesn’t quit, gets hired!” Joe Woyjeck, President of KWEFLA, is so proud of Hairo. “He had the drive to be successful and I am glad the Kevin Woyjeck Explorers for Life Association was able to give him some of the tools and take some of the financial burden off him so he could achieve his goal of becoming a firefighter. I know he will pay it forward for many years to come. Great job, Hario!” Behind a great young man, there is a great family – his mom and dad and two sisters and two dogs are very important to him. And, when he is not overachieving as a firefighter, he loves to surf, camp, play a little baseball, and, of course, FISH! He cherishes his dogs, Chewie and Ola May. You may be wondering about the cousin that sparked this light; William is a firefighter in the city of Commerce.
So, when you donate to the Kevin Woyjeck Explorer For Life Association you are giving young men and women that may not be in a financial position the chance to be a dedicated, passionate, tested, strong, giving, compassionate fire explorers, thus giving them a chance to serve the community. Thank you, Hairo, for sharing your story and inspiring us. If you would like to nominate an Explorer for future profiles, please contact us.