MUSCLE SHOALS — Students at the Muscle Shoals Career Academy got firsthand accounts of life as a first responder during Tuesday's assembly, "Chasing Your Dreams."

The program, organized by 11th-grader Bryce Thrasher as his health science leadership project, brought together first responders from throughout Colbert County who shared what it takes to be on the front lines of civil service and rescue.

Health sciences teacher Jolene Fretwell said the program's goal was to emphasize the growing need for first responders, and provide information on careers available.

"This is information that all our students need to know, whether they're interested in those careers or not," Fretwell said. "It's important to know how all these aspects of our community work together."

The program brought the jobs of first responders to life through those who do perform those duties day in and day out.

Matt Moore, an EMT for Helen Keller Hospital, told students that first responders are like family with one goal — to save lives.

"These men and women before you today aren't in this job for the money, but for their passion of helping others," Moore said.

The students heard from various speakers, including a 911 dispatcher, an EMA director and an emergency department physician. The underlying message of all three was that hard work now, while in school, will pay off later with a satisfying career.

Helen Keller Hospital Emergency Department physician Eric McDonald told the students that while he loves his job, that's not what defines him.

As a professed Christian who said his faith and family come first in his life, he urged the students to prioritize the areas of their lives for success and happiness.

"For me, I fell in love with firefighting, started out working for a volunteer fire department and then going through the ranks, loving each and every stage," he said, adding that it later led to paramedic school and his flight medic certification.

"I loved that life for 10 years, but I knew there was more for me to do. I loved the medicine side of it, so I went to medical school. As a practicing emergency medicine physician, I'm still a part of this (first responder) team that I love so much. It's cool to be a part of this."

Colbert EMA Director Michael David Smith said his life's passion was kick started when he was a 10th grader and volunteer firefighters responded to a fire at his home 25 years ago during one of the worst ice storms ever in the Shoals.

"I loved everything about it from that time time on, and joined the volunteer firefighters as soon as I was old enough, a senior in high school," Smith said.

A part-time job with the Colbert EMA turned into a career with a two-year teaching stint along the way. Today, he holds a director's position that he cherishes. 

Smith said he values career technical education. He urged the students to take advantage of every training opportunity available in their areas of interest.

"My passion turned into a career that's allowed me to save lives, and it doesn't get better than that," he said.

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