1 of 3
Photo by Theo Tate
Students march out of the Student Success Center at SIUE.
2 of 3
Photo by Theo Tate
Skylar Woody does an about-face at Cougar Lanes at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville on Friday. Woody is one of the students from the Team Illinois Youth Police Camp.
3 of 3
Photo by Theo Tate
Students pray before being served lunch at the Recreational Sports Complex at SIUE.
EDWARDSVILLE — After spending a week at the Team Illinois Youth Police Camp, Brooke Sohn didn’t want to leave.
“I wish it was longer,” the 14-year-old from Brighton said. “I do want to go home, but I want to stay.”
Sohn was one of many students age 13 to 16 who participated in the youth police camp, which wrapped up its 11th year on Saturday.
“This showed me a lot of discipline and self-respect and how to respect others,” said Sohn, who will be a freshman at Piasa Southwestern High this fall. “It really changed me. When I got here, I really wasn’t self-confident. After doing a lot of team-building and doing things, I’m more self-confident. I used to be bossy and have a big attitude, but you can’t have an attitude here, so that changed a lot.”
Fifty-seven students participated in the camp, which started July 10 at Principia College in Elsah.
“These guys have accomplished something that not everybody can do,” said Daron Barge, who was the coordinator of the camp and works as an Illinois State Police trooper. “They endured a long week of stress, being yelled at, having to wait in line and having to say ‘yes, ma’am’ and ‘yes, sir’ and making their beds every morning during inspections and going to bed at 10 p.m.”
On Friday, the students visited Southern Illinois University Edwardsville to bowl at Cougar Lanes for two hours and to eat lunch at the school’s Recreational Sports Complex.
“This is their way on how they are rewarding them for all of the hard work they have done,” Barge said.
During the camp, participants learned basic life skills and the duties of an officer. They were presented with information about guns, drugs, bullying, financial skills and the law.
“The first day, I wanted to go home because I didn’t like it,” said James Ware of Mount Vernon, one of the campers. “As the week progressed, I enjoyed myself.”
Illinois State Police Master Sgt. John Merrifield, one of the camp’s leaders, said the camp taught students about discipline and respect.
“The biggest thing they learned about themselves is not giving up, push themselves to make themselves better and be able to get back to the very basics ... and being respectful and knowing how to make your bed,” Merrifield said. “A lot of kids never made their beds before.”
Barge said the camp also trained students this month on how to deal with situations such as the tragic events in Dallas, Baton Rouge, La., and Falcon Heights, Minn. Five police officers were shot and killed in Dallas and two men were shot and killed in Louisiana and Minnesota. Three officers were fatally shot Sunday in Baton Rouge.
“Most of our young people are nervous and scared about what’s going on,” Barge said. “All they see on TV is all of these shootings and some of the questions that we run into are a lot of young people are scared when they come in contact with law enforcement. One of the goals that we wanted to let them know is we’re human beings. We’re not here to hurt them. We want to let them know what our responsibilities are and we want them to know that they can always come out and talk to an officer. They don’t have to be afraid. We try to mend relationships because a lot of people don’t have contact with law enforcement — only in situations when they really need us.”
Merrifield, who has been master sergeant of the Illinois State Police for 21 years, said he and three other people started the camp in 2005.
“It started out real small up at the Granite City Army Depot,” Merrifield said. “It started there and over the years, we have improved and we kind of grown from there.”
Calvin Dye, who works in public relations with the Illinois State Police, said the camp is challenging.
“We want to put them under a tremendous amount of stress because in life, in the real world, everyone faces adversity,” Dye said. “So we want to teach them during adversity to still maintain their composure and don’t display an attitude, don’t display bad body language. Those are all the key fundamentals in the real world to be successful. So that’s what we’re trying to instill in them.”
Haley Nelson of Alton was one of several campers who returned for their second year.
“When I first came here last year, I had no interest,” said Nelson, who also worked as one of the camp’s mentors. “My parents sent me, so I didn’t know exactly what it was. I thought it was a cheerleading camp. I got tricked.”
Nelson said the camp has inspired her to become a police officer.
“I feel like I can do whatever I want and I don’t give up and I don’t think like PT (physical training) and stuff is hard,” said Nelson, whose younger brother, Billy, also participated in the camp. “I push myself, so I think I can do it. I’d like to be a cop because I want to help people.”
Sohn, who plans to be a flight nurse in the future, said being at the police camp was a good experience for her.
“I enjoyed it a lot,” Sohn said. “At first, it was very difficult. You don’t really know what to expect when you get here. Ever since the first day, it has gotten easier and you get used to the cops and you just do what they tell you.”