GULFPORT, Miss. (WLOX) – Eleven brave men and women have found an additional family. Class 1901 of the Gulfport Fire Academy graduated Monday night, weeks of preparation and training finally paid off.

To this day, the chief says he still remembers his graduation day.

“This is something that they will never ever forget, and they have put in a lot of hard work over the last 10 weeks. I hope they remember it fondly,” said Gulfport Fire Chief Michael Beyerstedt.

One of the men who pushed the group the hardest was Fire Training Chief Eric Valles.

“It has been nine weeks that they have been in the class. Nine hard and grueling weeks in the middle of summer,” said Valles. “It is a huge accomplishment, and we are here to celebrate that.”

That feeling of accomplishment and joy spread throughout the room. The feeling resonated the most with those who were finally accomplishing childhood dreams of theirs.

“This has been one the biggest accomplishments in my life. This is one of the biggest accomplishments in all our lives. It means the world to us,” said graduate Zachary Layton. “This is one of the things we have wanted to do in all our lives, and today it is officially the day we gained our certifications as firefighters.”

The ceremony seemed filled with memorable moments. Lavonda Aldrich says she’ll always cherise the moment her kids pinned the badge to her chest.

“That is a moment I will keep with me forever. Every time I put this badge on I will see the faces of my beautiful children and my mom,” she explained.

The graduates will be serving and protecting Coast communities as members of either the Gulfport Fire Department, the Harrison County Fire Services Squad or the Pascagoula Fire Rescue crew.

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