Courtesy of St. Louis Post Dispatch
ELSAH • These camp counselors don’t care that the grass is wet or that the sun is barely above the trees. It’s 5:45 a.m. and you’re tired? Too bad. Drop and give them 20 push-ups.
Not the average counselors, they’re tough-talking police officers focused on transforming participants into their best selves over the course of a week at Principia College.
The TeamIllinois Youth Police Camp is a military-style experience for almost 60 cadets. It sounds hardcore, and it is. But by three days in, most of the the teenagers who arrived July 10 with a bad attitude and unwillingness to try found fresh mindsets.
James Ware, 15, from Mount Vernon, Ill., knew within 24 hours that he wants to come back next year. His goal for the experience was to become more respectful.
“I want to stop talking back or having an attitude with my parents,” he said, and start “doing things whenever they ask me to the first time.”
“I bet Mom and Dad would appreciate that,” a visitor says.
“Yes, ma’am,” Ware replied.
That’s important. “Yes ma’am,” and “yes sir,” are the only acceptable answers from these 12- to 17-year-olds during the camp week. It’s all about conforming to high expectations.
This is the 11th year for TeamIllinois. It is staffed by 35 to 40 officers, most with the Illinois State Police but some from Normandy, Shiloh, Collinsville, Granite City, Chicago and elsewhere.
It starts on a Sunday — it was July 10 this year — when officers swarm arrivals in the parking lot as parents drop them off.
“When you see them check in Sunday, you’re like, ‘Oh man,’ ” said Illinois Trooper Christopher “Joey” Watson, a counselor for several years. “And by the time they leave Saturday, they have made a complete transformation. You can see on their faces how proud of themselves they are.”
The idea is simple. The camp is all about pushing the cadets to work harder on the physical training and to think critically in classes about internet safety, budgeting their money, bullying and other issues important to that age group. But it’s also about life skills and learning not to lash out when faced with adversity.
More than 75 percent are there because family or their teachers think they need it. In the past, it was an alternative sentence for youths in trouble with a juvenile court. Some want to know more about law enforcement.
Despite the stress — officers analyze the quality of the “hospital corners” required on cadets’ beds every morning and may make them do it over — many teens come back for more.
Gabrielle Jackson, 13, from East St. Louis, was back for a second year because she loved talking to the officers she calls mentors. Jackson liked it so much that she brought her best friend and cousins along this summer.
Cadets get three meals a day, plus snacks. They wear a uniform hat and a shirt, which had better be tucked into their khaki shorts.
Parents pay $20 for the week. The camp is funded almost entirely by outside donors, Ameren being the largest.
The Illinois model is going so well that other cities and states are looking to copy it. Chicago is almost ready to launch one, and Minnesota and Missouri police agencies are exploring the option too.
Sgt. Robert Parr of the Missouri Highway Patrol said he was very impressed with TeamIllinois. Missouri has a similar military-style camp for college-age students and is considering a program for younger teens.
‘It will change some of their lives’
“The relationships they build with us is the most transformative part of the camp,” said Trooper Calvin Dye Jr., a camp organizer. “With everything going on nowadays with law enforcement and the community, mainly the youth, a lot of them come in here with a negative perception of us.”
Outside of the physical training and camp drills, cadets work in small groups with a few officers. They have raw talks about things happening in their lives, and officers open up about their own lives, too.
“We talk about times that we have failed, and that bridges that gap for them where they see us as people,” Dye said. “And you also talk about how you know the shows they’re watching and that new hip-hop artist they’re listening to. After that, you’ve really got them.”
The relationship doesn’t stop after graduation.
“I have had parents call me after months and say their kid was doing well the first few weeks after they got back, but they’re starting to talk back again,” Dye said. “We’ll visit the home and set the kids back straight. It’s awesome. It won’t be impactful for all of them, but we know it will change some of their lives.”