POLAND — It’s 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning and school buses are rolling in down a long dirt road. The faces peering out are a mixture between excited and anxious.
Suitcases, plastic bags, duffles and a motley selection of stuffed animals are in piles around the space outside a grand log lodge on Thompson Lake in Poland.
Golf carts buzz back and forth loading up gear and a child and zipping away toward a number of cabins. a\A few kids have parents trailing along.
It’s opening day at Camp POSTCARD.
POSTCARD stands for Police Officers Striving To Create And Reinforce Dreams. But the kids don’t know that. Most of them don’t know what camp really is – they’ve never been. Some have never been away from home overnight.
The campers are fifth- and sixth-graders from every county in Maine. They are chosen carefully.
“They are the most deserving kids,” explains Camp Director Michael Coon.
Coon says more than 450 apply to come, all referred by guidance counselors or school resource officers but the camp can only accommodate 165 this year. They choose campers based on need.
The need might arise because a child worked especially hard during the school year. Or, perhaps, they are in the middle of a very stressful time in their lives. Or, maybe the person referring them felt it would help the child overcome something in their life that was holding them back. Or they came last year and the experience had such an impact they can come back for a second year.
Only those making the decision as to who fills the slots know. The leaders [counselors] don’t know who the kids are or what their backgrounds involve. And they aren’t the only ones who don’t know everything.
Most of the campers don’t know that their leaders are cops.
The camp is located for the week in Poland at Camp Agassiz.
This week the cabins are named after Maine counties, there’s a Trooper cabin, a Game Warden cabin and the cabins house between 13 and 16 campers on average. Each cabin has at least two leaders and a CIT [Counselor in Training] or two. Although the campers are divided by sex, the leaders are not. So a boys’ cabin might have a male and a female leader, the same with the CITs.
There’s a huge lodge/dining hall, a waterfront with docks and canoes and places to fish, broad expanses of grass for playing ball of some sort, a nurses’ cabin, archery and arts and crafts cabins and a GaGa ball “pit.”
What is GaGa ball? You may well ask and on this first day, most of the campers won’t be able to tell you. No one has ever heard of it. We’ll get to that later.
Tabitha Tlumac, 19, is in her third year as a CIT. She adeptly handles the incoming boys to her cabin, which happens to be Troopers. This might be because her dad – Sam Tlumac – is a Maine State Trooper with Troop C out of Skowhegan. He has been coming to camp for nine years. They have 13 boys in their cabin.
Inside it’s a bit depressing. Bunk beds line the walls with bare mattresses. One by one, belongings are deposited on each by somewhat subdued young boys who have on brave faces.
The boys are told they must change into a suit for a swimming test. Not all look happy about this.
Each child has the same bag which has been given them upon arrival. It contains necessities such as a towel, shampoo, soap, toothbrush, deodorant and so forth. If a child does not bring a sleeping bag, one is supplied as are clothes and sneakers.
Everything given is brand new. New Balance, for example, has supplied hundreds of sneakers, says Coon. Walmart Distribution Center also donates goods.
And best of all, they get to take everything home with them.
No electronic devises are allowed … no phones, tablets, laptops.
As the campers arrive, they are instructed to leave their things outside and come into the lodge. They get a name tag as their name is checked off a master list. They then sit and wait for a nurse check and any meds they have are logged by the nurse.
After the nurse check they proceed to a table where they give their name and have their photo taken and a formal ID spits out which is attached to a lanyard which they must wear at all times. They get their cabin assignment.
From there, they line up and have an iris scan. According to Rumford Sgt. Douglas Maifeld, who is conducting the scan with a curved black iris camera, the scan goes into the state data bank. “It’s like having your child’s fingerprints taken like they used to do only this is much better – the eye has more identifiers unique to each person,” he explains.
The kids just think it’s cool.
“I never heard of this camp,” says Amanda Spicer of Wiscassett, “until he brought the paper home.” Dad says he’s “pretty sure it will be a safe environment … it’s one of the few places I don’t have to worry.” Their son sits quietly but admits he’s nervous.
Once all this is done, they head back outside where they are corralled onto a golf cart with their belongings and driven to their cabin.
Meanwhile, back at the cabins, those who have unpacked go in groups of three or four with a CIT down to the waterfront where the staff from the permanent camp test each camper to see what their swimming skills are. They are each given a colored wrist band much like a hospital band. The color tells the leaders and staff if the child can go in the deep end or needs to stay where their feet touch the bottom.
If they advance in their swimming skills over the week they might earn another color.
It’s now lunchtime.
First, though, there’s lineup outside the lodge. Each cabin stands in line outside the dining hall. A carrot or a pea might address them about healthy eating and then they file into the lodge in an orderly fashion. They have assigned tables.
Lunch is served family style by the leaders and CITs and table manners are required as is verbal politeness.
The afternoon includes more swim testing, flag creating (each cabin has a flag it carries when going as a group) and, what the schedule calls “icebreakers.”
Most of these children don’t know each other although some may know others in another cabin.
Around 4 p.m., they meet as a group with the leaders and, as a group, develop the rules for their cabin. Such things as no name calling, being helpful, no teasing are usually brought up by the campers as part of the rules.
Finally, it is time for dinner. A few from each cabin on a rotating basis, go to the lodge ahead of dinner to set the table. Again, as with lunch, the cabins eat family style chatting and sharing their day.
After dinner the campers get Free Time. In fact they get this three times every day for a block of two-and-a-half to three hours each time. They can swim, fish, canoe, do arts and crafts or play land sports.
And now we are back to GaGa ball. Enthusiasm for the game spreads through the camp like wildfire. The kids love it.
This may be in part because the leaders get in there as well and we all know how much fun it is to get a leader “out!”
But what is it? You’ll have to ask a camper … it’s special to the camp, just like the campers and leaders.
By 8:30 p.m. all are back in their cabins readying for bed. By 9 p.m. it’s quiet time where they quietly talk about their day, what they tried that was new to them and what was the best part of the day. By 9:15 p.m. it is lights out.
By 9:30 p.m., inevitably, everyone is sound asleep the nervousness and excitement of the day having worn them out.
The leaders gather at 9:30 p.m. to meet and discuss their day.
Day 2, 3, 4
The only difference between Day 1 and 2 is the campers … and perhaps the noise level. No longer are they quiet and subdued. They are chatting and fooling around and there is an easy, relaxed, informal camaraderie amongst cabins mates and leaders.
After a 7 a.m. wake up and showers, 8 a.m. breakfast and cabin cleaning, Days 2, 3 and 4 are similar with the exception of the after lunch free time. On Day 2 it includes a climbing wall, obstacle course and fireman’s muster and on Day 4 a book giveaway and science games. Oh, and baby goats on deck at the dining hall. Days 3 and 4 include surprises such as a helicopter landing with the chance to sit in it, carnival day, and egg drop competition, a climbing wall and bungee and a campfire complete with skits.
Then comes Day 5. This is a biggy. This is Demo Day which, ultimately, will be most of the campers’ favorite thing to experience at camp.
Around 9:30 a.m. big rigs start rolling down the dirt road, gathering in a paved area at the center of the camp. A fire engine, ambulance, swat team tank, bomb quad vehicle, Walmart tractor (without the trailer) ice cream truck, game warden trailer stuffed with myriad stuffed animals – all seized from poachers, boats on trailers and a mobile crime unit.
For the next three hours the campers will rotate by cabin through each of the exhibits. They will get to try on the protective gear the bomb squad wears and watch its robots in action. They will climb aboard the swat team’s armored vehicle and pop their heads out the hatch on the roof. They will enter the mobile crime lab and learn what CSIs do. They will watch a rope tying demonstration that looks more like a magic show than simply tying knots.
They will climb into the Walmart tractor cab for a view from a truck driver’s seat. They will enjoy cold ice cream and soda on draft and perhaps have something interesting painted on their faces.
Then it’s lunch time.
Today, they line up for a buffet-style service served by non other than a whole bunch of sheriffs from across Maine who have attended their monthly Sheriff’s Association meeting at the camp. Now although the sheriffs are in full uniform, their uniforms (and heads) are covered with aprons and “chefs” hats made by the campers.
Many are decorated with lace and most have writing on them. This makes for somewhat frilly sheriffs and softens their appearance. The kids love it.
After lunch, they hurry back to their cabins. It is inspection time. The cabins are inspected every day but today is special. Today, the sheriffs will be conducting the inspection … without lace.
The kids are nervous. Many have only experienced law enforcement in a negative way. Further, they line up like a military unit and stand at attention.
Groups of three of four sheriffs have three or four cabins on their inspection list. The kids breath a sigh of relief when they leave. The group mulls over what they have seen. They are supposed to ranks the cabins on a 1-5 scale.
Arguments ensue over whether a cabin should get a 3 or a 3.5 or maybe even a 3.75.
Camp Assistant Director Rand Maker (who also happens to be the Chief Deputy with the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office) grumbles at them and tells them to get a move on … they have three more cabins to inspect.
In the afternoon there is a demonstration by Bath Police Cpl. Michelle Small and her partner K-9 Officer Sampson.
Day 6 begins like every other day but after lunch the campers assemble at the amphitheater. They are entertained by a magician provided by Oxford County’s Sheriff and President of the Sheriff’s Association Wayne Gallant.
When the performance is over the kids slowly realize something is happening behind them. Two by three, heads turn and off in the distance can be seem marching in step, a line of police officers.
Some of the campers just smile. For many, their mouths drop. These are their leaders. The leaders they played GaGa ball with and beat. The guy or girl they exchanged fake punches with and verbal sparring. Their leaders are cops.
After the formal march into the amphitheater, the leaders take the stage by cabin and announce cabin awards for such things a Friendliest, Most helpful, etc.
The campers seem to know who will win in their cabin and are happy for their new friends.
Day 7 is a cross between excitement and subdued. A little like Day 1 but not as intense. Today is going home day.
For most campers it is a bittersweet day. They are happy to see their family and friends back home but sad to leave their new friends – campers and leaders alike. Phone numbers and emails are exchanged. A photo presentation is shown and then it is time to board buses or go meet parents.
For the first time it starts to rain. Tear drops and rain drops mingle as campers say goodbye and head out.
Best of the best
By the end of camp the campers aren’t reticent to speak out. What was their favorite part of camp?
“I came out of my shell,” says one young lady, “I loved it and made lots of friends.”
“I won the last GaGa of the year,” exclaims Tyler who is from Penobscot County. “It was my 20th win!”
“I sort of do sorta don’t” want to go home. Tyler says he will spend the rest of his summer playing X-Box.
“I’m going to miss fishing,” says Damien of Androscoggin County. Damien will spend his remaining summer on his tablet.
Sarah of Washington County says she likes “making new friends and trying new things” and Madison, also of Washington County, is delighted to have made a new friend (Sarah) “who only lives 30 minutes away!”
Abby of Lincoln County says Demo Day was her favorite part and Charlie of Kennebec County enjoyed making new friends, archery and swimming. “I am sad to go and would like to come again.”
Jiashaun of Cumberland County “love making friendship bracelets” as he shows five of them on his arm and Colby of Oxford County says he loved Demo Day but “I forgot what Mom looks like.”
Hayden, also of Cumberland County thinks GaGa ball is the best. “I’m really good [at it].” Philosophical, Hayden rationalizes that staying would cause him to miss family, friends and his phone but leaving will cause him to miss friends, GaGa and counselors.
Zachary of Lincoln County says, “I will miss all of it. I am sad to go, there’s a lot of fun stuff.
William of York County says he is looking forward to sleeping and quiet and Aiden of Oxford County says he will miss GaGa and swimming. He notes he got an award for the “Biggest Smile.”
Twenty-four years ago then state Trooper Christine Buchanan and Hancock County Deputy Sheriff Scott Kane joined forces and founded the camp. Today Chris rides around on a golf cart ensuring all is well and running errands.
Hancock Sheriff Deputy Luke Gross has spent 17 years coming to Camp POSTCARD as a leader. “[Doing this] reinforces compassion and understanding” on the job. “I am better at my job, I am better at home and I am better as a parent.”
Oxford County Deputy Christina Sugars who is also an SRO for the Sacopee Valley district says leaving is bittersweet. “I have a great time here but I have kids at home.”
Maker confirms it makes him a better parent. In fact his son is a CIT in one of the cabins this summer.
“I had no drama in my life [childhood],” he says, “but we see some things that make you appreciate your youth. This is an opportunity to pay back some of those who influenced you [growing up].”
Sugars adds that “dealing with kids, they [now] know cops are people and they see us in a different light.”
Gorham Police SRO Michael Coffin says he’s sad to go but next week he’s taking freshmen boys on a three-day rafting trip, then the following week, freshmen girls and then a week-long “cop camp” for the department.
According to Coon, one camper from the past has become a dispatcher and another a firefighter … that they know of. They do not, he says, have any way of tracking campers.
Next year is the 25th anniversary of Camp POSTCARD and Coon hopes to reach out through the media and get alumni campers back for a reunion.
Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School SRO, retired OCSO deputy and Paris Officer Tim Holland, who has been coming for years says, “my feet are sore and my back is sore.” But, he quickly adds, it is worth it.
“We make a change in a lot of these kids … kids feel they have accomplished something. I’ve learned a lot from the kids. It makes you a good cop to do this. It makes you a good parent. It makes you realize what it’s all about.”
Holland says he uses his years of experience at the camp “every day as an SRO. Some of the kids at OHCHS have told me they wish they could go back [to camp].”
Coon says they are always in need to leaders. Leaders can be local, state or county cops, dispatchers, game wardens, corrections officers, firefighters, EMTs … and most of the leaders are paid their regular salary by their departments while at camp. A few use vacation.
Some of the CITs used to be campers.
Paige Wentworth, 17, and Delaney Gardner, 20, of Washington County have been best friends since they were little. They have also been campers and are now CITs.
They sum up camp like this.
“Usually by Monday [Day 3],” Wentworth begins, “no Sunday,” contradicts Gardner, “their shells crack and by Wednesday they are in full force.
“In all the kids you see an impact,” they agree.
Some, they say, don’t know how to set a table or eat together at a table and not in the living room.
One girl, they say, said, “I am going to do this [eating together at the table] at home with my brother and sister. I like this.”
The overweight boy or taller-than-her-peers girl disappear and become the friend who helped you master a new skill or the buddy you want to keep in touch with after camp. Every camper fits in and they each know it. For one glorious week they have no worry, no stress, no insecurity. They can simply be.
In fact, walking around, listening and watching – admittedly a bit wistfully – the entire camp looks like a fun and inspiring experience.
Cops? Don’t see any, just a bunch of goofy adults having fun. Kids? Yup a lot of ’em having the time of their lives.
Camp POSTCARD is a joint effort between the Maine State Sheriff’s Association, the Maine D.A.R.E.® Officers Association and Volunteers of America. Since its inception 24 years ago more than 3,000 Maine children have attended.
Volunteers of America have years of experience running Fresh Air camps so the organization was a perfect fit to help run this camp.
Kids and leaders live together as a family. Campers who might struggle in a traditional camp setting thrive at POSTCARD.
Law enforcement that might bump heads over turf band together as a unified team of leaders. Friendships form that stay with them when they are back in uniform and enhance community policing.
Camp POSTCARD began in northern New England and has now spread to Wyoming, Montana and Colordao.
The camp is absolutely free for each and every camper. Funds are raised throught the year by the VOA and Sheriff’s Association. It also depends on the generosity of sponsors and donations including:
Norway Savings Bank
Anthem Blue Cross
Hallowell Board of Trade
LaBree’s Bakery of Old town