CLARKSVILLE, Ohio -- Eric Dunn was a 10-year-old kid “running the streets” near Winton Terrace when a neighborhood police officer spotted him.
The officer asked Dunn’s mom if she would be interested in sending her energetic son to a program known as “police camp,” designed to help kids get to know police officers as people instead of just the cops who come around when something bad happens.
He ended up going to the camp for a couple of summers, and it changed his life.
“Growing up where the majority of the time, the police come to your neighborhood to fix a problem, that’s the only time I saw the police,” Dunn said. “To actually see those officers in their shorts and swimming with them and horseback riding with them, it showed me that this big guy that I thought was a bully and a dictator is actually a really cool dude. And it inspired me to want to be like them at that point.”
So much so that Dunn became an officer with the Cincinnati Police Department, where he has worked for the past 31 years. For most of those years, he also has volunteered every summer at police camp -- officially known as the Police Youth Live-In -- held for the past 18 years in conjunction with Camp Joy.
His experience illustrates not only the power of the Police Youth Live-In but also the transformational power that being away at camp can have on kids and adults alike, said Jennifer Eismeier, Camp Joy’s executive director.
“This is about getting people out of their normal patterns of behavior, and giving them a chance to learn, observe, grow, play and have fun so they can go back to wherever they are -- at home or at work, in their neighborhood or their community -- and have a changed perspective,” she said.
That core value runs through all of the programs at Camp Joy, which is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year. Whether participants are inner-city youth, children with chronic medical conditions or adults taking part in a corporate retreat, people who spend time at Camp Joy all leave feeling changed, she said.
‘Step into our shoes’
With police-community relations across the country strained by the fatal shootings of black men by police officers, that makes a new perspective toward the police feel more important than ever, Dunn said.
One recent day at camp, kids participated in a mock traffic stop where they got to pretend to be police officers pulling over a driver. The driver, played by a police officer wearing shorts, a t-shirt and a ball cap, was sometimes uncooperative and ended up having a gun in many of the scenarios.
“It gives them that moment to step into our shoes and see what we actually go through. Traffic stops are one of the hardest things an officer has to do,” Dunn said. “We purposely use this to show how intense those stops can be.”
In another activity, a police officer talked with campers about the dangers of drugs as a follow-up to an activity they had done the night before.
The kids also got to learn about miniature horses from Seven Oaks Farm. The horses wore little Cincinnati Police Therapy Horse uniforms as they walked around on leads while a handler told campers all about them and answered questions.
On other days, the kids saw police dog demonstrations, learned about police motorcycles and mountain bikes and Cincinnati fire safety, too.
Many of the nearly 100 participants come from neighborhoods marked by violence, Dunn said, and they think of the police the same way he did as a kid.
“What we try to do is to show that you do not have to become a product of your environment,” he said. “You have officers you can talk to, teachers, counselors you can talk to that if you feel that it’s too overpowering, take a step back and go see someone and go in that direction.”
Changing hearts, minds and aspirations
Grace Allen lives Montgomery. She’s 10 and will be a sixth-grader at Edwin H. Greene Intermediate School. And while she’s not from the inner city, being at Camp Joy for the Police Youth Live-In has changed her perspective about the police, too, she said.
Grace used to get kind of scared when her family would go past a stopped police car and would slow down, she said.
“Like I’m not sure like why we’re stopping,” she said. “But now I know you have to stop just in case there’s an emergency. And when I come here, I realize that the police officers are not really that scary. They’re just trying to help.”
Grace has learned so much about what the police do, in fact, that being a police officer has become her No. 1 career choice.
“I really want to be a police officer,” she said. “And then if not that, a football player.”
It’s exactly the kind of outcome that Dunn was hoping for when he started volunteering for the Police Youth Live-In at Camp Joy more than 20 summers ago.
But even for kids who don’t grow up wanting to be police officers, Dunn said he thinks the camp gives them a different point of view when the community faces difficult times, such as the riots in 2001 or the anger surrounding the fatal shooting of Samuel DuBose in 2015 by former University of Cincinnati Police Officer Ray Tensing.
Being part of what Dunn calls police camp shows kids: “Cops are OK,” he said. “It’s bad what happened. But we’re not going to make it worse by participating in destroying things and so forth.”
It’s another important example of that changed perspective that Camp Joy delivers with every program it offers.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.