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Youth camp makes a difference

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By Teresa Herriman

The Courier-Herald

The last time most of these kids saw a police officer, it wasn't for a social call. This time, they are spending five days together at Law Enforcement Youth Camp (LEYC).

The program is intended to introduce officers and at-risk children to each other in a more relaxed setting, giving them a positive experience to counteract some of the negative interactions they each may have had.

Many of the campers have only seen police officers in crisis situations, explained Steve Mauer, who is in his fifth year as president of the annual youth camp. Some are scared of officers, he said.

Held at Sunset Lake Camp outside Wilkeson, the LEYC is run by law enforcement volunteers, many of whom use vacation time to serve as camp counselors. Supplies and expenses are covered by donations the officers gather over the course of the year. The camp is free to the participants.

"This camp rocks! I don't want to leave," one camper merrily exclaimed.

Children swing off ropes into the lake, scream as they inner tube behind a boat, make sand art in craft sessions and, of course, sing around the campfire.

One night, members of the Tacoma Astronomical Society, led by astronomy enthusiast Ken Board of the Pierce County Sheriff's Department, stopped by with a number of telescopes to show campers the stars.

"That's what this camp is all about; giving children the opportunity to try things they've never done before," Mauer said.

The youth camp is the beginning of a nine-month commitment to the kids, he explained. Each child is teamed with a law enforcement officer, including local police, sheriff and corrections officers, who are required to attend at least two of the four events scheduled over the course of the year following camp. There's a Christmas Party, winter and spring outing and a trip to the annual Bacon Bowl, a football game featuring Tacoma and Pierce County police officers.

This year, LEYC celebrates its 30th anniversary. It's also the biggest camp in a long time, Mauer, a 20-year camp volunteer and Puyallup police officer, said.

Typically the camp averages 80 to 90 kids chosen from throughout the area. Most are recommended for the camp by the officers, school counselors or the Pierce County Mentoring Association.

"The children come from all walks of life," program coordinator Kim Crowder said. She is the director of the Shop with a Cop program sponsored by Tacoma Police Union No. 6, and a long-time LEYC volunteer.

Most of the campers are between the ages of 9 and 11.

"Although, if the child really needs this, they are here," Crowder said of the recruiting process.

Occasionally, the officers are reminded these children can have a different experience from other kids. During a skit one evening, as one participant grabbed another, the campers began chanting, "Restraining order, restraining order."

"These are 9- to 11-year-old kids!" Mauer marveled.

The size of the camp is based on the number of officers who are able to participate as counselors. Last year only 64 campers were able to attend due to difficulties in finding officer volunteers.

Most of the children come from larger communities since smaller towns, such as Bonney Lake, are unable to spare officers for a week. Campers who attended from the Bonney Lake and Lake Tapps area were sponsored by county sheriffs.

The primary sponsors are Tapco Credit Union, the Bacon Bowl Association, the Gig Harbor Target store and the Mildred Street McDonald's in Tacoma.

Chris Taylor, of the Tacoma Police Department, has been a camp counselor for 27 years. He believes LEYC is good for the volunteers as well as the campers. Officers who primarily deal with children who make bad choices can get a distorted view of youth, he explained.

"Every once in a while I run into a kid I had in camp," he said.

"They are always respectful. They remember the camp as a positive experience. That makes it all worthwhile."

Teresa Herriman can be reached at therriman@courierherald.com.

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