Here in Braintree, summer camp options abound. Sports camps, field trip camps, and day camps provide much needed recreation for our youth during the summer months. However, none come close to providing the team-building skills and confidence-boosting activities you’ll find at the Norfolk County Sheriff’s Department Youth Leadership Academy.
Sheriff Michael Bellotti started the wildly popular academy back in 2002 only to see it shut down in 2009 for lack of funding. The camp returned in 2011 due in part to a “strong demand by the public,” Bellotti said, but more importantly because of a partnership with the town of Braintree and Mayor Joseph Sullivan.
For the first time, the camp has an entrance fee of $75 – an amount viewed as both "affordable and sustainable," according to Matt Lowe, Director of Community Outreach.
Designed for kids ages 10 through 14, the academy aims to make an impact during that critical middle school age when children “are making bigger decisions and have greater freedom,” Bellotti said. “We want to give them the right tools in the toolbox when confronted with peer pressure."
The five-day progressive leadership academy teaches problem-solving skills and leadership training through activities such as role playing, team-building exercises, and ultimately completing units on the challenging aerial ropes course.
Throughout the week, the campers are consistently challenged and encouraged to set goals for themselves and to figure out ways to work together to accomplish those goals using the ABCDE framework. The campers are encouraged to Ask Questions, Brainstorm, Choose an Idea, Do It, and Evaluate.
Over the course of the nine-week program, a little more than 100 campers descend on the academy for each week-long session, excited but nervous. Broken down into smaller working groups, campers may or may not know the other children in the group.
Nearly 60 percent of the campers are from Braintree, with the rest coming from Quincy, Weymouth, Holbrook and other surrounding towns. New faces and a fear of the unknown are the order of the day on Monday. By Friday, you can sense the camaraderie and support the campers have for one another.
The academy features 22 full-time counselors who undergo a rigoruous training schedule. Working as paid interns, each counselor must have at least one year of college under their belt. Ellen Fleming, a Braintree High School graduate and junior at Endicott College, is herself a graduate of the academy, having participated in the program when she attended South Middle School.
“I’m so impressed with the kids,” Fleming said. “They each have different personalities and fears and it’s just so impressive that they are able to do it.”
The “it” that Fleming refers to is the ropes course that covers the Public Safety Complex on Route 37. More than 26 different climbing apparatus make it one of the largest adventure courses in New England. Each of the apparatus is designed to help overcome fears, encourage positive risk taking, promote physical challenges, and most importantly, provide a way for the campers to encourage and support one another.
Just some of the elements include the Swingshot, which hurtles children through the air; the Vertical Playpen which challenges children to the limit of their physical ability; a Zip Line which towers 30 feet in the air and requires two campers to take the leap of faith together; and, the Quad, which requires four individuals to ascend and stand upon a platform measuring a mere foot and a half in diameter atop a pole 20 feet tall.
On a recent visit, a group of campers from Braintree and Quincy were clearly enjoying themselves after having just completed the Broken Bridge course. Reminiscent of what you’d find in an Indiana Jones movie or any action film you’ve ever seen, the bridge is wobbly and unpredictable and, oh yes, suspended at least 20 feet in the air.
After completing the course, the campers burst with confidence. For Rachel, whose legs often weren’t long enough to reach the next step, the bridge was both “fun and scary.” Mallory, who also found the bridge to be difficult, had some words of advice: “I kept slipping but kept doing it til I got it and then I got it.” When she finally reached the other side, Mallory said “I felt like a ninja.”
The counselors also benefit from the leadership academy, recognizing their own personal growth throughout the course of the program. Dan Roche, a sophomore at Catholic University, has worked every summer with kids and is finishing up his first year with the leadership academy.
“The kids are just hilarious and are supportive of each other,” Roche said. But the moment he sees a reluctant camper accomplish a goal and overcome a fear, “you feel like you accomplished something too.”
For Director Lowe, who has been with the program since 2004, even weathering the years when the camp was shut down, the academy is a labor of love. “We create an army of youth leaders,” he said
Perhaps even more critical than the climbing exercises are the debriefing sessions that occur afterward, really bringing home the experience for the campers.
“Kids talk about it and break it down,” Lowe said. Debriefing sessions are particularly helpful with campers that may have difficulty expressing themselves or may need props to help get the conversation moving.
But it’s exactly the fact that the campers are allowed to set goals for themselves and are then the creators of their own experience that makes the academy so crucial to building their self-esteem and its success. Although some may shed a tear or become terrified at the thought of completing a particular apparatus, they are always encouraged to try and set a goal they feel they can accomplish. Whether they complete the task or only go half way, it’s the camper’s decision.
While the counselors and peer leaders are there to offer support, the real special moments occur when you hear campers shouting words of encouragement to one another. For some the “whole experience is daunting,” Lowe said.
At the academy, fear is not something to be mocked, but overcome with the help of peers. So when a camper reaches their goal, whether it’s making it to the platform or taking the plunge, words of encouragement like “you can do it” and “great job” are continuously heard throughout the camp and contribute to the sense of accomplishment.
It’s exactly these moments that make the leadership academy such a wonderful experience. For Sheriff Bellotti, the academy gives the campers an opportunity not only to “be a good role model” but more importantly, the skills needed to be “a good influence in their school, family, and community.”