Since 1965, children across the commonwealth have spent a week of their summers away from home with law enforcement officers on a 35-acre island in the middle of a Kentucky lake.
For the first time, members of the Lexington Police Department accompanied more than 50 economically challenged Lexington children from ages 10-12 to Trooper Island this week. And perhaps no time was better than now — serious conversations are being had across the country over building trust between police officers and citizens — for Lexington’s first trip to the five-day summer camp.
While 10-year-old Quannel Owens admitted he missed his mother during his time on the island in the middle of Dale Hollow Lake, he also formed relationships with officers that he said he won’t forget.
“Now I know that when you go up and you see them, you can give them a high five,” Owens said.
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“Yeah, you see them and you know that you got a hug coming your way,” Darrion Minniefield, another 10-year-old camper added. “You got a hug, a high five or a lunch coming.”
Owens and Minniefield spent a lot of their time playing flag football and trying to tip each other's canoes, but they also took home some lessons they wouldn't get at other summer camps. Those lessons will be shared with more than 700 children from across the state this summer as they attend the camp that sits near the Cumberland and Clinton County line.
“We’re the first point of contact for the police department when people call for help, and that’s huge for the kids to get to know one of us,” said Nannette Lewis, a Lexington emergency dispatcher. “They were asking their friends, ‘Do you know when you call 911 what you’re supposed to do?’”
Typically, two different posts from across the state combine their campers for a week at the island, which is leased from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This past week, Trooper Island Cmdr. Jonathan Biven and five Lexington police officers had a unique experience with the all-Lexington camp.
Sprinkled in between jam-packed days of swimming, archery, canoeing and fishing were sessions concerning public safety and health.
Engineers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spoke about boating safety. On Tuesday, dental hygienists from Delta Dental gave every Lexington camper a full dental exam. There was a group activity in the chapel Wednesday with volunteers from Albany First Baptist Church.
Clad in a T-shirt and khaki shorts most of the week, Biven switched to his state police uniform to explain the significance of the blue light on top of police cars.
“It was amazing because they’ve seen me dressed like this all week, but the next thing you know I’ve got this gray uniform on and hat pulled down and they’re like, ‘You’re the police?’,” Biven said.
He stood in front of the memorial flagpole and read the names of every Kentucky police officer who has died in the line of duty.
“Even though [the children] knew they didn't have to, they stood at attention and saluted the officers back,” Lewis said about the ceremony.
After seeing and hearing police outreach in Lexington, Biven wanted to make sure Lexington children found their way to Trooper Island.
Most of the campers were chosen by family resource programs within Lexington schools. The camp is free for the kids and funded through donations from car raffles and dollars raised at golf tournaments. Food donations were made by local shops and restaurants. The only taxpayer dollars used in the program are for the salaries of Biven, three full-time maintenance employees and a nurse.
“Even if it was a cost to me, just for the experience in the time that I’ve been here, it’s priceless,” Lewis said. “Seeing the look on these kids’ faces and watching them make new friends is such a heartwarming experience.”
The children showed their appreciation.
“The people like the police, they die for us and stuff,” Owens said as he wiped part of a powdered doughnut off his cheek. “I’m thankful to be here because they would die for us and they do it for us.”
More than 60 former campers have gone on to become law enforcement officials since the camp started.