The week-long Road DAWG camp that ended with a graduation ceremony Friday afternoon was intended to educate at-risk middle-school students from the Mount Vernon and Franconia areas. But part of that education, provided by volunteers from middle schools and Fairfax County’s human services agencies, as well as officers from the local police stations, required a heavy dose of fun.
As the adults and youths played games together, from kickball to bowling, "they could see that we’re just normal people, and we like to have fun too," said Robin Saviola, who works in the Teen Services Division of the county’s Department of Community and Recreation Services.
It was in this spirit that, after the graduation ceremony, counselors told the 28 campers that their group picture had turned out poorly, and then herded them outside and lined them up, so that the police officers could bombard them with water balloons.
The officers had suffered the brunt of a water balloon fight earlier in the week, Saviola reported.
The Road DAWG (Don’t Associate with Gangs) camp is in its fourth year in Fairfax County, and this is the second year the camp was held in the Mount Vernon/Franconia area. Camps were also held in Springfield and Reston last week.
"I was told you were the best camp, though. Is that true?" Fairfax County Police Chief David Rohrer asked the campers assembled for graduation in the auditorium of Carl Sandburg Middle School. He said he hoped the children had found a chance to meet the police officers who participated, and had learned that they were not enemies, and he encouraged the campers to seek help from parents, teachers and police when they had problems. "We’re all part of the neighborhood," said Rohrer. "We’re a big family."
Capt. Michael Kline, commander of the Mount Vernon District Police Station, said he had heard favorable reports about the camp from his officers. "They’ve especially been talking about how engaged you guys were as participants," he told the campers. Kline remarked that he had never met a minority youth from the Mount Vernon area who aspired to become a police officer, and he encouraged the children to consider this option, noting that there is "a lot of opportunity" in the police department.
INDEED, ROSARIO GONZALES, a rising ninth-grader at Thomas Edison High School, reported that she had decided she wanted to join the police force. She said she had learned at the camp that it is safe to ask a police officer for help. "They’ll actually help you. They’re not mean," said Gonzales. She also noted that the group’s tour of the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center had affected her. "I got freaked out by the people there," she said.
"Not only does it help you in life, but it helps you to find a new you,"said Patricia Gonzales, a rising eighth-grader at Mark Twain Middle School, of the camp. "I learned that, even though I’ve made mistakes in life, I can still change them."
"They taught us how to stay out of gangs and what kind of diseases we can get if we don’t use protection, and that protection isn’t always good enough," said Douglas Williams, a rising seventh-grader at Walt Whitman Middle School. He said the highlights of his week had been a game of flag football among the campers and a race against the police officers, although the police had won the race.
Madelyn Cedillos, a rising eighth-grader at Sandburg Middle School, said she appreciated learning confidence and being taught to talk to authority figures, but she most valued the friends she had made. "For me, this was a great experience, and I want to come back next year," she said.
However, Marvin Goodley, the school resource officer at Sandburg Middle School, said children can only attend the camp once, as the county is trying to expose as many students as possible to its influence.
PARTICIPANTS WERE TARGETED for the camp by school resource officers and administrators. "They’re basically kids they thought were at risk of entering into gang activity or joining a gang, or just not making the right decisions," said volunteer April Green, who works for the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board.
Goodley said that about 100 applications for the camp had been handed out, with just over one-fourth of those students actually applying. The children often require some coaxing before they will apply, said Goodley, noting that the best advocates are often former participants. He said police and county officials designed the camp for students entering grades seven through nine because "that’s the age group they feel they can make a difference with."
Saviola noted that some other camp activities included team-building exercises at Hemlock Overlook and talks from guest speakers. A prison inmate spoke about decision-making, as did a husband and wife who, Saviola said, "had been through the system many times." Talks were also given on Internet safety and health safety.
Both volunteers said bridging the gap between youth and authority was the most rewarding aspect of the camp. Green noted that she was able to build relationships with the children in a way that was not always possible in her work through schools and community centers.
"I really like the idea of building that relationship between kids and the police department," said Saviola, noting that she often heard children complaining about the police.
Green said her favorite activities were the team-building exercises on the second day of camp. "That was a lot of fun," she said. "The kids were really resistant at first, but then they started to have fun without really admitting they were having fun."