South Portland kids, cops bond at summer camp

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SOUTH PORTLAND — About 30 middle schoolers are spending the week with city police officers, enjoying a summer camp experience with a life-skills twist.

The Junior Police Academy Camp, hosted for students entering sixth, seventh and eighth grades by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and Police Department, is in its third year.

Community Resource Officer Erin Curry, a South Portland native who has been a police officer for 11 years, said the camp focuses on building skills, holding students accountable, and teamwork.

Lt. Frank Clark, SPPD’s public communications officer, started the program so officers could become a positive influence on students. It also allows officers to become known as people, not just uniforms and badges.

Clark said it’s as beneficial a program to the officers as it is to students, with both parties enjoying time spent together during the week.

He said the 10-13 age group is a transitional time, when teaching key values such as mutual respect and service is important. Part of the camp’s goal is to spur similar conversations at home about themes learned at camp.

“It’s to help kids as they mature and grow,” Clark said. “We want them to have fun and be a positive experience.”

Camp activities are varied and include a day on Peaks Island, where campers bike and participate in a scavenger hunt; mock investigations; SWAT team demonstrations; a K-9 demonstration; outdoor and indoor games; swimming at the community center pool, and challenges that will encourage leadership and build confidence.

Curry said campers look up to police officers, and a week spent together makes the officers feel like they are all part of the same community. “It solidifies the community bond we have together,” she said.

Activities are designed to develop communication, decision-making skills, teamwork and leadership. Campers learn about the role police play in their community and the importance of the department’s guiding values: integrity, respect, service, fairness and leadership.

Sophia Sass, who will soon turn 13, said the attraction for her is seeing what police officers do in their day-to-day jobs, as well as the excursion and scavenger hunt on Peaks Island.

Fisher Petrlik, who is 11 and in his first year as a camper, said his older cousins attended the camp before him. He said he likes learning about the tools officers use, as well as playing capture the flag.

Curry said she enjoys time with the students, as well as meeting their parents, especially when she sees them in the community after camp ends.

Anecdotally, Curry said, parents have told that when children return home from camp, they refer to adults as sir and ma’am, and often spend time before bed doing pushups.

Curry said the camp is popular because there are a lot of activities offered and, at $75 a week for residents and $85 for nonresidents, it’s affordable. There is about $10,000 in scholarship money offered to help pay for tuition, but no families applied for aid this year and the funds remain unused.

Jenee Nadeau, youth sports coordinator with the Parks and Recreation Department, said the camp is one of the department’s most popular programs. She said the department has been considering expanding the camp to include the Fire Department, or to hold a second camp staffed by firefighters.

Juliette Laaka can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or at Follow her on Twitter @JulietteLaaka.

South Portland Police Officer and K-9 handler Kate Thurlow demonstrates to campers July 10 the type of work she does with her German shepherd, Creed.

South Portland High School Resource Officer Alfred Giusto leads campers back into the community center during the second day of Junior Police Academy Camp July 10.

Campers Fisher Petrlik, left, and Sophia Sass, right, with Officer Erin Curry on the second day of Junior Police Academy Camp Tuesday, July 10, in South Portland.