RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- On Thursday night, Jade Gatling will be celebrating not just her 18th birthday but her historic graduation.
After joining the Gaston Volunteer Fire Department's cadet program nearly ago, she will be the first Black woman to graduate.
"It means I get to be an inspiration to everybody else that's coming behind me because I was the first Black female cadet in the program, and then a month later, my friend Mayah joined the program," she said. "And it's been just us for a while. But now I want other Black females and other females, and say 'she can do it, I can do it too.'"
She decided to join after seeing a clip of training in a friend's Instagram story.
"He sent me the application, and then I was there," Gatling recalled.
At the time, Gatling was just one of two women in the group of nearly 20 people.
"I was a little nervous that I wasn't going to be able to do it, just a little bit of doubt in myself, and that I wasn't going to mingle well with the people," Gatling said. "But I can honestly say that the people at the station are my second family."
Her success helped encourage others, including her friend Mayah Davis, to join.
"She was very inspirational, and she would push me and I would push her that if we had a goal, we would push each other to meet it, even if it was hard," Gatling said.
Both girls have expressed interest in pursuing careers in medicine and are hopeful the valuable experience and training they've received in the program will help.
"She has a good personality and gets along well with people. And she should have a good future in life in whatever path she decides to go," said Deputy Chief Ed Porter of the Gaston Volunteer Fire Department.
Porter said he has been working in Fire Services since the 1950s, and he added that there has been an increased push for diversity through the years.
"It's important that we have all the community represented, male and female alike. Years ago, there was a time as I remember there were no female firefighters," Porter recalled.
The department's cadet program also highlights the need for more volunteers; in North Carolina, about 70% of firefighters are volunteers.
Though Porter said his department did not lose members because of COVID-19 concerns, he felt it was likely the pandemic has affected recruitment efforts.
"I'm sure there would be some people that would be hesitant to go into a service where you're going to be mingling with the public and injured people. And in the ambulance portion of our service, actually transporting patients that have the virus," Porter said.
Gatling discussed training in the midst of the pandemic.
"Being up close and personal with the pandemic and being able to help people -- seeing people who needed help and were so happy for us to be there, is so overwhelming. It's so exciting," Gatling said.
These types of cadet and training programs are aimed at boosting staffing levels.
"It's just another opportunity and open door for young people to busy themselves at a young age and begin learning and determine which way they want to go in the future," Porter said. "Some go through our program and become full members, and some decide to go to paid departments or become county-paid EMT and paramedics."
Gatling shared advice to others interested in joining.
"There's going to be a learning curve, that's how it is for anybody. But don't be scared, you got it. EMS is something you learn, (firefighting) is something you learn with time and experience. It's not going to come to you naturally, so just don't be scared," Gatling said.
Once Gatling graduates high school, she plans to work as an EMT while attending college, where she'll study either public health or biochemistry.