In many places, one might be surprised to see young kids and teenagers jumping at the chance to spend days off from school with police officers. However, every summer, Mahwah’s youth gets excited about just that prospect.
Each year, the Mahwah Police Department and Mahwah Municipal Alliance make their Junior Police and Youth Leadership Academies a little bit bigger, and this year both programs are hitting milestones.
The Junior Police Academy, a two-week day camp open to rising sixth grade students in Mahwah, is celebrating its tenth anniversary year.
“This academy is basically a microcosm of what we go through for six months in the Police Academy,” Officer Joe Horn, an active MMA member and teacher in both summer academies, explained.
JPA activities are focused on law enforcement classes and activities, which in the past have included trips to the Intrepid, Coast Guard, and DEA helicopter lands, and activities like wearing goggles that simulate what perception is like under the influence.
The camp, held at Ramapo Ridge, has grown over the past ten years “from 34 kids in the beginning to more than half of the fifth grade class,” Horn said.
“One of the most important things kids take away from this experience is a relationship with the police officers,” MMA president Carolyn Blake said.
“My daughter was in a car accident, it was very scary. Throughout the whole ordeal, she was so calm and I was amazed. When I asked her why, she said it was because she had known the policeman who responded to the scene of her accident, Officer Curtis, from camp,” Blake said.
“She said, ‘I knew he’d take care of me, so I wasn’t afraid.’ They really do form an important bond.”
As the organizers of these programs explain it, the Youth Leadership Academy, a three-night sleep-away event for seventh-twelfth graders that is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year, is the jewel in the programs crown that makes Mahwah’s youth outreach programs different than others.
“I have never seen a program like this in any other town,” said Police Chief James Batelli.
“We have about 180 kids in the YLA, and, whether they know it or not, every single activity they do there, while it may be fun, is geared toward teaching them a lesson about how to be a leader and a responsible young adult,” Horn said.
Horn said YLA students are broken into groups, and asked to work together on various tasks, “kind of like the challenges on ‘The Apprentice.’”
In the past, students have engaged in public speaking events, organized a fundraiser that raised $3000 for three charities of the kids’ choosing, and other team-building, problem-solving activities.
This year, participants can look forward to trying to break a Guinness Book world record and participating in “Minute-to-Win-It” challenges.
“There is a teaching moment in everything we do,” Horn said. “But the kids are having such a blast that they don’t even notice.
The students also get a sneak preview at college life, staying in the Ramapo College dorms, eating in the cafeteria, and experiencing a bit of independence. This year, Ramapo President Dr. Peter Mercer will address the students, and Officer Horn often writes college recommendation letters for students who have gone through the program.
However, parents need not worry, as genders are separated by floor in the dorms, photos of every day’s events are uploaded to a Facebook page for parents every night, and Mahwah police officers are always on-hand should an incident arise – which Batelli said has never happened in the program’s history.
The ratio of adults to students is 1:15.
Renting a college campus for five days, providing three meals a day for all 180 kids, going on field trips, renting coach buses, providing YLA clothing and a graduation ceremony makes this “a very expensive program,” Batelli said.
“And, we only charge $250 per child. It doesn’t come close to paying for the cost of the camp,” which Batelli says is about $50-60K.
“The cost does not come out of the police budget. The MMA pays for the program through fundraising,” Batelli said.
This year, the MMA is raffling a 2011 GLK 4-Matic Mercedes Benz from the Prestige Motor Company as part of its fundraising efforts. Interested donators can purchase raffle tickets for the July drawing at the Mahwah Sunoco.
“I think the fact that we get so many donations from the community and are actually exceeding our goals, partly because of donations we get from parents whose children have gone through the police camps, speaks to how great these programs really are,” said Sunoco owner and MMA member Bill Laforet.
Batelli credits Mahwah officers who “do not get paid overtime” to run the camp with its success.
“They are so dedicated to it. We actually have to turn officers down who apply to do this, because there is such enthusiasm about it in the department,” Batelli said.
“The program really relies on the passion, blood, sweat and tears of our dedicated officers.”
For Horn and his fellow officers in the Mahwah PD, they feel fortunate to be given the opportunity to make an impact on the lives of young people in Mahwah.
“We are lucky that the Chief continues to fight for this program,” Horn said.
“We help them to achieve what they want to, and give them the tools to do it. It’s a great thing,” Horn said.