From migrant worker to fire lieutenant
When Jorge Lara was a young boy, his parents were migrant workers in Florida. After dropping out of school, Lara figured that picking tomatoes was the only life he would ever lead. At 16, he became a first-time father.
Today, however, Lara is a lieutenant with the Isles of Capri Fire and Rescue in Collier County, Fla. It’s a very long way from where he started. The Municipal recently asked Lara several questions about his past and about how he succeeded in becoming a lieutenant.
Q: How and why did you become a lieutenant for the Isle of Capri?
A: I began my career as a firefighter with the Ochopee Fire Control District in Everglades City, Fla., in Oct. 2001, where I served for approximately five years. OCFD is a small but progressive department that promotes and supports professional growth.
During my fifth year at OCFD a lieutenant’s position became available at Isles of Capri Fire Rescue. Although I met all criteria to apply for this position, I deliberated for a few days since I was the applicant with least years on the job and the least seniority. I was convinced that the odds of actually being promoted were not in my favor. There were three individuals far more qualified than me who applied. To my surprise I was offered the job two hours after my interview, and I accepted.
Q: How long have you been lieutenant and did you work your way up the ranks?
A: I have been serving as a lieutenant at Isles of Capri Fire Rescue for approximately seven years now. I worked my way up the ranks through hard work, education and persistence.
Early in my career I realized I needed to go beyond being a certified firefighter. Therefore, I earned a bachelor’s degree in science and management. Then I concentrated and earned the Fire Officer I and II, Live Fire Instructor and Instructor II certifications.
The “pedigree” is what got me the interview: persistence, a well-written letter of intent and a memorable interview earned me the promotion.
Q: As lieutenant, what are your duties and responsibilities?
A: I am responsible for the day-to-day operations of my shift, including the supervision and direction of the firefighters on my shift. We provide fire protection as well as marine rescue operations.
Q: You mentioned that your parents were migrant workers. Tell me a little bit about that.
A: Yes, I am the product of three generations of migrant farmworkers. My father has a third-grade education. My mother only got as far as fourth grade.
I grew up in South Dade Labor Camp, a migrant labor camp located in Homestead, Fla. Our specialty was picking tomatoes. We followed the tomato season from Homestead to Immokalee then up to Quincy, Fla. Once the tomato seasons ended in Florida, we followed the migrant stream up to South Carolina and eventually headed back to Homestead once the harvesting season ended.
Following the migrant stream was hard. I never completed a full year of school. This took its toll on me. Not being able to keep up, I eventually dropped out of school during my sixth-grade year. I felt my chances of succeeding in life were better in the tomato fields. Picking tomatoes was what I did best.
This would turn out to be the worst decision my parents and I ever made. I got into lots of trouble, and by the age 16, I became a father.
By age 17, I hit rock bottom. I was in trouble with the law and had a child I could not feed. I actually contemplated suicide.
The pivotal point in my life was outside of a Burger King next to the Miami-Dade County Courthouse. I had been released on probation. Between my mother and I, we had approximately $5 in coins; just enough to celebrate my release with a Whopper and a drink. I looked at my mother and told her that I would have been better off in jail. I had no education, no job and no skills to get a job. In jail I could have earned a GED. My mother looked back at me and straightened out as much as she could like a mother goose ready to protect her baby. She said, “You are a diamond in the rough, and it’s time to start polishing you.” That was the spark that ignited me. That was the moment.
The next day my mother enrolled me in a GED program at the South Dade Skill Center in Homestead. Two months later, I earned my GED and never stopped learning. Later in life, Gov. Jeb Bush granted me a full pardon.
Q: How did growing up like you did affect your work today?
A: My past is what has driven me. I never want to go back to where I was when I told my mom jail would have been a better place for me. I was broken. Therefore, I will continue to work as hard as I can and learn as much as possible. I have become a lifelong learner.
Q: Tell me about your family, wife and children.
A: I now have a beautiful wife and a best friend who just happens to be my 7-year-old son, Caesar. I got full custody of my daughter, Melannie, who is now 23, and raised her on my own until I met my wife.
Lara attended Miami Dade Community College, where he earned his associate in arts degree graduating Phi Theta Kappa. He earned his undergraduate degree in science and business management from Hodges University, Naples.
As a volunteer Chief with 42 years on the job I just wanted to write and say how impressed I was by your coverage of this man’s story. Thanks.