“A hundred years from now, it will not matter what kind of car I drove, what kind of house I lived in, how much money I had in the bank; but the world may be a better place because I made a difference in the life of a child.” ~Forest Witcraft

Escambia County, Florida Sheriff’s Department has a unique summer program that is dedicated to establishing positive relationships with its youngest citizens. “Camp Friendship” provides a week of fun, education, and bonding for both law enforcement and the children of their community. The idea for Camp Friendship was conceived by former Deputy Troy Brown, who had a heart for working with kids. While on patrol, Brown observed that usually the only time children interacted with the police was in a negative situation. Brown thought it would be a good idea if the Sheriff’s Office could provide a free event where the police could reach kids on a personal level and to help them understand that the police are there to help them, rather than to hurt them. Although Brown has since relocated to another state, Camp Friendship has continued to flourish.

“Our goal is to have a positive impact on kids by showing law enforcement in a positive light,” said Lt. Robert Martin. “We want them to recognize that we are the ‘good guys’, and not just the ones who show up whenever something bad happens.”

Now in its fourth year of operation, the weeklong event is held twice each summer for children ages 6-12. It is made possible through the collaborative efforts of law enforcement, non-sworn civilian employees, Explorers, and Escambia County School Board.

“The deputies who facilitate the camp are school resource officers. The deputies also benefit from the program, because they have the opportunity to work with kids who are younger than the ones they usually work with,” Martin said.

The program is provided at no cost to the families. Meals and snacks are included. To attend, families must submit applications, and enrollment is on a “first come, first serve basis”.

Camp Friendship isn’t like the average summer day camp. Every activity or field trip has a purpose, and the emphasis is always on making good choices. For example, a field trip to the Naval Aviation Museum provided an opportunity for kids to learn about local history.

Campers toured the firehouse and learned about fire safety. “Eddie Eagle” gave a presentation on gun safety, and “Smokey the Bear” talked about preventing forest fires. Demonstrations were provided by the SWAT team, motor unit, mounted unit, search unit, and K 9 unit. In addition, the kids were “introduced” to the K 9 officers and their partners.  Campers were given a tour of “Camp 5”, with the Escambia County Road Prison. They learned about self-sufficiency by visiting the gardens where inmates grow fresh vegetables and cultivate tilapia for their own meals. Residents from Pensacola Boys Base, a Florida Department of Juvenile Justice commitment program, shared their personal stories and talked to the campers about the negative consequences of criminal behavior.

All week, the deputies wore shorts and T-shirts. On the final day, they arrived in uniform.

“The reasoning behind that is to show the kids that, although we are businesslike and professional when we have to be, we can are also human beings who can lighten up and have fun,” Martin said. “We want them to know recognize that the same men and women they had a good time with all week are the same people who wear a uniform and a badge. We aren’t just there to take people to jail. We want them to be comfortable enough to come to us when they need help.”

The week culminated with a pizza party, with parents or guardians in attendance. An official graduation ceremony was held, at which Sheriff David Morgan and the deputies presented each child with a certificate ofcompletion. The week’s activities were memorialized in a video production,coordinated by the talented Rhonda Ray, complete with background music.

Based upon feedback from both children and law enforcement, the camp seems to be fulfilling its mission. One of this year‘s campers, 10 year old Alexis Colley, wrote a poem to show her appreciation for the deputies and the Explorers.

“She did that completely on her own,” Martin said. “I have also had three of my prior campers recognize me and give me a hug. To know that we have reached someone and made a difference in a child’s life, that is what makes it worthwhile.”

The next camp will be held July 20-24. Fore more information, contact Escambia County Sheriff’s Office, 850.436.9630, www.escambiaso.com, or Escambia County Sheriff’s Office/Facebook

Find out more: http://www.pnj.com/story/news/local/escambia-county/2015/06/26/kids-deputies-bond-camp-friendship/29371437/