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Chester County Press

Summer fun and life lessons at Camp Cadet

08/17/2015 01:38PM ● By J. Chambless

Camp Cadet participants march to the flagpole on Monday morning.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

On Monday morning, just after breakfast, 120 boys and girls lined up at Camp Saginaw near Oxford, ready to be put to the test.

As a police officer shouted out the cadence, the campers marched in step – or as close to in step as they could manage – up to the camp flagpole, where they lined up in rows for the flag raising. Pennsylvania State Trooper Samantha Minnucci, binder in hand, gave the orders for the morning: “We're going to be going down to the lake, so you will need sunscreen and bug spray!” she shouted.

“Yes ma'am!” the campers shouted back in unison.

The routine will be repeated each morning during Camp Cadet, a week-long camp that combines the usual summer rituals – campfires, boating, swimming and plenty of chow – with lessons in regimentation, rigorous exercise and a just a taste of what being in the military is like. Minnucci, who has been part of Camp Cadet for three years, and the camp director for the past two years, said the campers – ages 11 to 13 – sometimes arrive with a chip on their shoulders.

“Most of the kids don't want to do this at first, but once they come to orientation and see everything they'll be doing, they think, 'Wow – it's really not boot camp.'”

Camp Cadet was started in 1970 in Pennsylvania, and came to Chester County in 1971. “It was started to get youth and law enforcement connected,” Minnucci said. “To explain that police are there to help them, and we risk our lives for them every day.”

The camp has been held at Saginaw for three years, “because of how much they offer at this facility,” she said. “We have everything we need. We have a shooting range where campers can elect to learn gun safety and then fire a revolver. We have firearms instructors to teach them that it's not a toy, we teach them firearm safety, and that it's a powerful weapon. We do that so they don't think, 'Ooh, I want to know what that feels like' and pick up a gun. We hold their arms while they do it, but they can feel it's powerful, so they're not going to touch it on their own.”

There's a tall wooden tower and a zip line that tests the bravery of young campers, a rock-climbing wall, motorized go-carts, a lake with canoes and fishing, a pool, and custom activities that Minnucci spends a whole year organizing.

“We teach them drug and alcohol prevention, we bring in the K-9 unit, the mounted unit from the State Police, we bring in representatives from all the armed services,” she said. “Last night, we had 17 police cars come. They came in with lights and sirens, and all the kids could go and ask the officers questions. It was great. Yes, we are a State Police-run program, but all law enforcement is invited. Some of these kids have local departments, so we brought officers in from Coatesville, or Sadsbury. We want each kid to have an interaction with someone from their own police department.”

There's a simulated crime scene later in the week where campers will be asked to remember as many details as possible, and then investigate the clues to solve the crime. They'll get a chance to be fingerprinted, to see how officers subdue and handcuff suspects, and see what a drug bust – using bags full of sugar as the drugs – really looks like.

On Monday morning, guest Derrick Flood, a U.S. Army drill sergeant, led the campers in how to stand at attention, how to listen to directions and maintain decorum.

“With discipline, you're not going to move when you're told you shouldn't be moving,” Flood told the campers. “But I saw some people looking at me, scratching their nose. Why? Lack of discipline, yes? Well, we're going to fix that. Correct?”

“Yes, drill sergeant!” the campers shouted in unison.

“We do yell a little bit, but we're really not that bad,” Minnucci said, smiling. “We know we're dealing with children, and we have rules for everything. We don't go overboard. When we were in the police academy, we got it bad. These kids? Not even close. So we do treat them like children, but we still give them the discipline.”

What the campers gain, she said, is increased self-esteem – whether they find it on the zip line, in the fun activities or in the way every camper gets the same yellow shirts and hats, so there are no comparisons of wealth or background during the week. “We want them to leave behind where they grew up, how much money they have. We want them to come here and learn together,” Minncci said. “It's also an easier way to keep track of 120 kids,” she added, smiling.

She is careful to select campers from a wide range of areas in the county – wealthy and needy – for the free camp, which is funded by $35,000 raised through donations and fundraisers throughout the year. This year, there were almost 300 applicants, and 120 were chosen.

The officers who staff the camp all week are volunteers, Minnucci said. “We're here 24/7. There is one trooper or local officer assigned to each cabin,” she said. “We leave our own families behind for a week, and we get homesick ourselves. We tell the kids we know what they're going through.”

While some of the campers are at the camp because it's a week of camp they might not otherwise be able to afford, there are some who are very interested in the military or police work, as well as those who struggle with the most basic physical challenges.

“We started with a run this morning, and some of these kids can't run 200 feet,” Minnucci said. “It's a shame. We're trying to get them out of that 'Let's play video games' thing. We want them to get in shape and havc long, healthy lives. They may say they can't do it, but we push them. And afterwards, they're proud of themselves.”

Each day begins with reveille at 6 a.m., followed by physical training for 45 minutes, then breakfast. There's an hour of drilling each day, which still leaves plenty of time for fun.

There were some wandering eyes and fidgety feet during the drills on Monday morning, the second day of camp, and Minnucci said the campers sometimes resist the discipline, but by the end of the week, the graduation ceremony includes every child marching into place in uniform and performing some of the drills they've learned.

“The parents are amazed by it,” Minnucci said. “They're like, 'That's my kid?' To see them go from a mess to amazing in a week is a wonderful feeling.

“It's challenging but so rewarding,” she said. “I had one kid say, 'I feel like I've left my young self behind, and I'm moving on with my adult self.' Another one said, 'I realize that Batman and Superman aren't really heroes. It's you guys. You're risking your lives for us. You're our heroes.' To hear that from kids, it shows they're getting the message.

“So they're learning, they're improving, and hopefully they'll take this experience with them the rest of their lives. We want them to really blossom, and they do.”

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email [email protected].