When the busloads of children arrive on Sunday they look “a little bewildered, like they’re wondering what did I get myself into,” said Yellowstone County Deputy Ryan Taylor about Camp POSTCARD, a unique camp for fifth- and sixth-graders held in June in the Beartooth Mountains.
“But, by Monday night they’re starting to come out of their shells and by Thursday they’re chattering away and you really see a transformation.”
Volunteers of America Northern Rockies organizes the camps, one in Wyoming June 8-13, and one at Beartooth Mountain Christian Camp near Nye, June 22 -27.
Taylor, thanks to the commitment of the Yellowstone County Sheriff Dan Linder and the YCS Department, has been one of the law enforcement officers who has participated at the camp since its beginning three years ago. Its name derives from the engagement of the peace officers - Police Officer Striving to Create and Reinforce Dreams - and without them there would not be a camp where kids who might not be able to afford camp could spend a week engaged in outdoor recreation mingled with team-building, leadership development and individual growth.
“These aren’t really troubled kids, but they may be at-risk kids. They probably come from homes where there isn’t any money to provide them with this experience. They may be kids who have been bullied, haven’t many friends, not much self esteem,” Ryan said. “We’re there to help them change that.”
Ryan first became involved in Camp POSTCARD. when he was a School Resource Officer (SRO), but he has stayed involved because he believes in what the camp accomplishes.
“I believe in it wholeheartedly. This will be my fourth year and, while I had some doubts in the beginning, I’ve seen kids whose leadership potential was buried come out. I’ve watched kids come together as a team. It matters,” Ryan said.
Dan Brown, a veteran officer with the Billings Police Department, shares Ryan’s view of Camp POSTCARD. Brown is able to participate thanks to the commitment of BPD Chief Rick St. John, but even if the department didn’t pay for his time “I’d use my vacation time to go. I believe in it that strongly.”
Brown is one of the first cops to participate, attending Camp in Wyoming, which has held them for a dozen years, before helping found Camp in Montana, now entering its fourth year.
“I’ve been involved since the get-go and I’m more excited by it every year because I see kids come who lack confidence or are remote and, in a few days, they change. They get active and involved. They’re upbeat.”
Brown, who has 21 years with BPD, once served as a school resource officer and knows how to spot the kids that Camp experience might benefit.
“They’re the kids in the back of the room, with their heads down, or wandering around by themselves on the playground. Not necessarily the troublemakers. Just not engaged. Without buddies.”
Brown likes the fact that a week at Camp teaches “ethics, values, morals” in addition to activities designed to teach teamwork and leadership.
How this happens is achieved with a variety of activities. Kids are challenged to climb rock walls and to scoot along in tandem on skis. They learn firearm safety and accountability. They see demonstrations by SWAT teams. The National Guard brings a helicopter and Stillwater Mining Co. dispatches a mine rescue team to demonstrate its skills.
Success is measured by many who were Camp kids coming back as Camp mentors.
“They’ve blossomed. They’re aware of how much Camp meant to them and they want to help others have that same experience,” according to Heath Steel, VOANR Executive Vice President for Operations.
Steel is one of the chief proponents of Camp because he’s been to all of them.
“There isn’t any Camp anywhere like this one where these kids build long term, trusting relationships with cops. When they leave, they know they’ve got a police officer they can call on 24/7 who will be there for them.”
Camp became a passion for Barb Skelton. An owner of Intermountain Equestrian Center, and a VOANR Board Member, Skelton said hearing kids tell what was the best thing about Camp convinced her to support Camp.
“When one little boy says it’s the first time he’s slept in a bed and a little girl says it’s the first time she sat down to a dinner table, or when you see a little girl show up with one beat-up pink lawn chair and a kid with just a dirty T-shirt and holey tennis shoes, you know helping out is the right thing to do,” Skelton said.
“I heard a philanthropist say that money won’t buy happiness but generosity does, and that’s true for me about Camp. I see what my support does and it does make me happy. When kids are happy and healthy, it’s always a good thing.”
Besides the $5,000 donation Skelton personally gave for Camp, this year Camp has found support from BNSF Railway Foundation, MDU Resources, the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, Phillips 66 (which recently donated $8,000), Stillwater Mining Co., and a host of individual donors, but “we still need financial support to bring as many kids to Camp as possible,” Steel said.