Story by Kacie Frederick. Photos by Jan Osborn.
The first African American female to be appointed to the position of Assistant Fire Chief, Tameji Berry, gives back to the Dallas community through her program, Camp L.A.D.D.E.R. Since 2015, Camp L.A.D.D.E.R, or Ladies Achieving Dreams with Dedication, Enthusiasm, and Respect, empowers young women of the Dallas Independent School District (DISD). Each year during the second weekend of November, the girls are introduced to fire prevention education training, fire investigation, and motivational speakers, all while building leadership skills.
Chief Berry began her career in the Fire-Rescue Industry twenty-two years ago, gaining exposure through her husband, a firefighter. After he was injured during a fire rescue mission, Berry shares her reason for joining the fire service.
“When he called me and said he was hurt on the job, my heart nearly stopped,” Berry says. “I asked him how the fire started, and he said he didn’t know. From that day, I wasn’t satisfied with the idea of not knowing.”
Shortly after, Berry applied for the role of a fire inspector to better understand why fires, like the one that injured her husband, start. Berry then studied hard to remain at the top of her class, fighting for each promotion she received to work her way up the fire industry’s ladder of success. Now, as Assistant Fire Chief, Berry’s background in fire investigation and inspection helps her connect with the firefighters on duty and the citizens she serves, explaining how and why fires start.
As a woman of color in her leadership position, Berry describes the challenges she continues to face even as the Dallas Fire-Rescue Department marks its 150th anniversary.
“I am often misunderstood and face judgment based on race and gender as opposed to being valued for my education, skills, work ethic, and passion for serving others,” says Berry.
In times of misunderstanding, Berry turns to education in order to advocate for herself. Without a fellow female mentor in the fire industry, Berry relies on herself as her own role model. This, she explains, is how her passion for Camp L.A.D.D.E.R. sparked. In 2013, Berry responded to a fire in a lower-income neighborhood. When stepping out of the apparatus to put on her gear, Berry noticed a 10-year-old girl. Seeing Berry’s ponytail, Berry noticed the little girl’s eyes light up.
“I then thought to myself, why is it 2013 and little girls still don’t know that firefighting is something that they can do?” says Berry. “That little girl didn’t know, but she changed my life.”
Two years after this interaction, Berry founded Camp L.A.D.D.E.R. Growing up in a lower-income neighborhood of Dallas along with her position in Dallas Fire-Rescue, Berry knows firsthand what the needs are in the community. Camp L.A.D.D.E.R. specifically reaches young women with Dallas Independent School District (DISD) backgrounds, as Berry is a product of DISD herself, graduating from Skyline High School. It is essential for Berry to serve DISD students because she believes DISD is the core of the city.
In 2021, an art initiative was implemented for a summer assignment for students at Booker T. Washington High School, DISD. The project was to depict an image to honor women in the fire service. Last December, a panel of judges awarded student Maddie Black the 1st place prize and a cash honorarium from Camp L.A.D.D.E.R.
As an entirely female-run and led program, Camp L.A.D.D.E.R is the only one of its kind in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. With opportunities for young women to gain entry-level knowledge of the fire industry, Berry’s program gives women the confidence and decision-making skills for graduation and beyond. Many Camp L.A.D.D.E.R. graduates have pursued professional careers, entering graduate school and even serving in the Armed Forces.
“When I think back to where I grew up as a little girl, an opportunity like Camp L.A.D.D.E.R. can literally change someone’s life. It really can,” says Berry.
Camp L.A.D.D.E.R. is a nonprofit dedicated to serving the young women of Dallas through a fire training program that includes fire prevention education, home fire inspection, and fire investigative skills. Camp L.A.D.D.E.R. is an IRS-registered 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, making your donation tax-deductible. Donations can be made online at www.campladder.org/sponsors-and-donations.