Greetings From Camp
A young camper at the Kentucky Sheriffs’ Boys and Girls Ranch enjoyed playing on the jumbo slip-n-slide on a hot, muggy morning in mid-July. (Photo by Jim Robertson)
The dust was thick, but the laughter was thicker on a hot, steamy mid-July afternoon at Kentucky Sheriffs’ Boys and Girls Ranch in Marshall County. Though hot and humid, the group of about 20 kids from across the state inside the Gaga Ball Pit didn’t seem to mind as they merrily played without a care in the world.
Smack dab in the middle of the pit was 11-year-old David Smalley of Marion County.
“I love playing in the Gaga Pit,” the self-proclaimed “King” of the Gaga Pit said.
Gaga Pit is a gentler version of dodgeball, played with a soft foam ball. The game combines the skills of dodging, striking, running and jumping while trying to hit opponents with the ball below the knees.
Smalley is just one of more than 35,000 kids, ages 8 to 11, whom the Boys and Girls Ranch has served since opening in 1975.
A similar story is told some 215 miles to the southeast at Trooper Island in Clinton County.
The island is located in a secluded corner of Dale Hollow Lake and, every year, is the scene of summer camp for thousands of children representing the 16 Kentucky State Police posts.
During the summer months, different KSP posts from across the state send campers for a week-long camp. In mid-June, however, KSP partnered with the Lexington Police Department for camp as Trooper Island welcomed more than 50 children from the Lexington area.
Lexington Police Sgt. Rahsaan Berry with LPD’s Community Services Section said the first-year partnership with the KSP-operated Island was a win-win situation.
“We’re getting the kids out of the inner city that we live in and we are showing them a different perspective of what life has to offer; bringing them down to be surrounded by nature and this area has been great,” he said.
The camp was a hit for the Lexington group. “Their eyes were wide open,” Berry said. “They are excited to be here, and doing something as simple as riding in a boat was exciting. Many of these kids don’t have the resources to do things like swimming, archery and fishing. So it’s phenomenal that we were able to bring them down to (Trooper Island).”
Serving Kentucky’s kids, many of whom come from economically-challenged backgrounds, is the mission of both facilities.
Since it opened in 1965, Trooper Island has hosted more than 22,000 children from across the state on the 35-acre island.
“(Former KSP Director, Col. James Bassett) wanted to find a place where children throughout Kentucky could come and escape the turmoil of their everyday lives,” said Trooper Jonathan Biven, commander of Trooper Island. “He wanted a place where they would learn respect, not only for our country, but also for law enforcement.”
In the 1970s, sheriffs from across the commonwealth came together and envisioned the concept of the Boys and Girls Ranch, according to Assistant Camp Director Tracy Powell.
“They wanted a place where kids could get away from their home life and work together by setting and reaching goals,” she said. “A camp is a place where children can build moral character, self-esteem and it teaches them to have respect for law enforcement and themselves.”
While it is hard to quantify the number of kids who have been positively affected by their camp experiences, there are tell-tale signs that many seeds planted over the years have taken root, Biven said.
“Since 1965, there have been more than 60 campers and counselors who have gone on to careers with the Kentucky State Police,” he said. “So my question is, how many troopers or police officers are in this group? We’re planting that seed.”
The sheriffs’ ranch has also made headway in establishing better relationships between children and law enforcement, Powell said, adding that several campers and counselors have gone into law enforcement or education later in life.
“We have a lot of former campers who are in law enforcement,” she said. “(Sheriff) Bobby Davidson in Livingston (County) is a former camper. (Sheriff) Stan Hudson in Caldwell County was a camper or counselor.”
It is all about relationship building, and in a camp setting, the best way to establish relationships is to give campers structure and something to do by way of recreational activities.
While at Trooper Island, the pool is probably the most popular attraction for children, Biven said.
The island also offers fishing off the boat dock.
“Some of (the kids) have caught small-mouth bass, but most of them catch bluegill,” Biven said. “The fish are smart. They know when the kids are here because it’s red worm central. At one point during the summer, you can probably just reach down into the water and grab (a fish). The fish know they’re going to eat well and not get caught.”
Besides swimming and fishing, Trooper Island also offers a wide range of activities such as canoeing and archery, and also offers basketball courts and softball fields.
Similar features are found at the Boys and Girls Ranch.
“They can’t wait to get to the swimming pool,” Powell said. “It’s the first thing out of their mouths.”
While a week at camp is jam-packed with activities such as fishing and games, the kids also learn important messages, whether it be from a D.A.R.E. instructor from the Marshall County Sheriff’s Office or dental care courtesy of Delta Dental, who set up a small office at Trooper Island.
“The mobile dental unit saw 53 patients who each received full dental exams, and afterward, the hygienist took over for cleanings,” Biven said. “You’re at summer camp and you get your teeth cleaned at no cost to any kid here.”
KSA’s Boys and Girls Ranch has 115 beds spread out over four bunkhouses, but usually hosts 75 campers a week.
Trooper Island has four air-conditioned cabins, and each unit can sleep 20 campers.
One thing camp does not offer is mobile devices. At both locations, the camp is camp and technology is not allowed.
“No iPads or cell phones allowed,” Biven said. “They soon realize that they may have to talk to their neighbor or do something other than watch a screen.”
The Boys and Girls Ranch does afford the luxury of watching a movie on a DVD player, but they are also a device-free zone for campers.
Campers at Trooper Island are roused with the wonderful sound of a KSP cruiser with lights and sirens each morning at 7.
“It’s the ultimate wake up call,” Biven said.
At 7:45 a.m., campers assemble at the flagpole for the flag-raising ceremony.
“We are going to teach these kids to be good citizens,” Biven said.
After the flag ceremony, breakfast is served, activities with the camp counselors start at 8:45 a.m. and the campers rotate activities throughout the day.
At 5 p.m., the counselors turn over the kids to the troopers, who are on the island for the week until bedtime, which usually happens around 10 p.m.
That scenario also plays out at the Boys and Girls Ranch. The campers there wake up at 7 a.m. and have warm-up activities on the basketball courts at 7:30 a.m. That is followed by breakfast and, at 9 a.m., the daily activities begin and continue throughout the day with the campers rotating from one activity to the other.
While the cost of the camps are free for the kids, throughout the year, KSA’s ranch and Trooper Island officials spend countless hours raising funds.
“We are on an island that is run strictly on donations except for three state maintenance employees and myself,” Biven said. “Those are the only tax dollars we use.”
Trooper Island fundraising mechanisms include a variety of creative and innovative events.
“Each Kentucky State Police post has golf tournaments, and the Frankfort post organizes a poker run,” Biven said. “We have a huge fishing tournament here in October that is named after one of our fallen troopers – Trooper Clinton Cunningham.”
For the last several years, KSP has held a raffle to give away a big-ticket item such as a vehicle.
“This year’s raffle is a Dodge Challenger Scat Pack,” Biven said. “Last year, we gave away a Jeep, and the year before that, it was a truck.”
In addition to fundraisers, corporate sponsors have stepped up to help fund the island.
The Boys and Girls Ranch is also funded through donations, Powell said.
“All of our sheriff’s offices do fundraisers ranging from golf tournaments to fishing tournaments,” she said. “We do a raffle every year. The last two or three years we’ve given away a John Deere Gator.”
There is also an annual membership program residents can sign up for, as well as business sponsorships.
“We also prospect (send out letters soliciting funds) for new members and we try to (prospect) 50 counties every year,” Powell said.
Some of the money from fundraising goes toward paying counselors and other camp staff, such as food service personnel.
Many of the Trooper Island counselors are former campers or related to a state trooper in some way, Biven said. All of the counselors are lifeguard certified.
The camp counselors at KSA’s ranch are recruited from colleges and universities throughout the state, Powell said.
“We like to have 11 counselors – five females, five males and one head counselor,” she said.
For many of the counselors, working a summer job is a means to make some money, but most importantly, it’s a chance to help those who need it.
“We get to be a big part of their day and week, and it’s very rewarding,” KSA’s Ranch Head Counselor Kayla Quarles said.
Making a difference in the lives of campers is what drives counselors to be the role model many of the campers need.
“We had a little boy my first summer and he came to me because he was upset that his gym teacher was retiring,” she said. “He loved his gym teacher because any time he got into trouble, he got to go see him. He was upset because his gym teacher taught him how to stay calm when he got upset. Now he was worried because the gym teacher wouldn’t be there anymore.”
The camp counselors worked with the young boy on ways to keep calm and dealing with anxiety.
“The next year at camp, he came running off the bus and said, ‘Ms. Kayla and Ms. Stacy, I only had two referrals this year,’” Quarles said. “He took what he learned at camp and applied it in his daily life. It was awesome. That is why I come back (to serve as a counselor).”
Serving the kids of the commonwealth is the common thread both camps share, and the end goal is giving kids, like Smalley, the true camp experience.
“We get to do a lot of stuff that is fun,” Smalley said, as he glanced down the hill toward the Gaga Ball Pit. “I like riding bikes and playing in the Gaga Pit and eating s’mores. And I like meeting new people.”
Based on Smalley’s testimony, it was mission accomplished.