BRUNSWICK — Summer camp can be a childhood rite of passage.
And for the past 25 years, Camp POSTCARD, a program run by Volunteers of America Northern New England, has been giving hundreds of Maine kids a chance to take the journey.
Camp POSTCARD – Police Officers Striving to Create and Reinforce Dreams – is a free weeklong sleepover camp in Poland for Maine fifth- and sixth-graders. This year’s session began June 15 and will run through June 22.
The Brunswick-based nonprofit is a regional branch of the national organization Volunteers of America. In addition to being offered at no cost to attendees, the initiative is unique because the counselors are also volunteers. Many are members of law enforcement, criminal justice professionals, or first responders from around the state.
Michael Coon, vice president of external relations for Volunteers of America NNE, said June Koegel, president and CEO of the organization, teamed up with multiple Maine law enforcement professionals to create the camp in 1994.
“They got together back in ‘94 and decided there was a need for kids in Maine who had nothing else to do and needed some good adult role models,” he said. “The first camp (was) a small group. They took them out for a week, all the camp counselors were police officers, and it was very successful.”
Twenty-five summers later, Coon said the camp is hosting 161 campers and over 80 law enforcement officers on campus.
In order to attend Camp POSTCARD, children must be recommended by a community official such as a resource officer, law enforcement officer or school personnel.
Many of the children selected have some kind of “economic disadvantage,” Coon said, noting while kids from all over the country attend summer camp in Maine, often local kids can’t afford to go.
Others may have experienced trauma or a family hardship, such as losing a parent, or are being raised in a non-traditional situation – though not all reasons for attending are “bad,” Coon said.
“(It) might be a kid that really did great this year and turned it around,” he said.”(Maybe they) worked hard, and this is a reward.”
It costs $400 per camper for the weeklong program, which necessitates that staff members raise the money “from scratch” every year. Most of it comes from individual donors, with funds also coming from corporate sponsors and grants.
In addition to costs associated with the day-to-day expenses of running a camp, Coon said his organization also makes sure when every child arrives, any supplies he or she might need is available. Some items provided include new sleeping bags, pillows, and blankets campers can take home.
“You’d be surprised with how many kids show up with very little,” he said. “One of the things we try to do is make sure it’s new stuff; most of these kids (usually) get hand-me-downs.”
The camp also tries to provide necessities for life after camp.
This year, for instance, every camper will be going home with a new backpack full of school supplies, and an organization also came in to give each child a new pair of sneakers.
Volunteers of America has 33 affiliate branches around the country, and Coon said the model of Camp POSTCARD has been replicated in four other states: Colorado, New York, Montana and Wyoming.
One change made to the camp since its inception is adding a nutritional piece to the program to teach kids how to eat healthier. The location of the camp has also moved more than once over the years.
During the week, kids get to enjoy typical camp activities such as fishing, swimming, kayaking, and arts and crafts, but also get to engage with other campers from around Maine they probably would not meet otherwise.
“We have 161 campers, boys and girls from all 16 counties in Maine,” he said. “We make sure we get kids from all the counties.”
Special activities are also part of the program, including “carnival day,” which features attractions like a bouncy house and cotton candy.
Camp counselors comprise both male and female police officers, as Coon said organizers think it is important for kids to have strong male and female role models.
Others from Volunteers of America also act as counselors, and several former campers have come back over the years to help out, Coon added. Some have even pursued careers in law enforcement or as first responders.
“The kids that come here really believe in it,” he said.
During camp, kids have the opportunity to interact with law enforcement professionals in a casual setting. Counselors do not wear uniforms during the program, though campers are aware of their occupations.
Towards the end of the week, however, there is an “officer march,” when the children get to see counselors they have gotten to know dressed in uniform.
Through the experience, Coon said, the hope is that kids get to see officers as “regular people.”
“We hope it’s a connection they make,” he said. “That (they think), ‘the person I see in my community is someone I can trust, and can help me.'”
Camp POSTCARD, a free summer camp for Maine fifth- and sixth-graders, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Many of the counselors are law enforcement officials from around the state.