POLAND — It’s 10 a.m. on a Saturday and school buses are rolling down a long dirt road. The faces peering out are a mixture of excited and anxious.
Suitcases, plastic bags, duffles and a motley selection of stuffed animals are in piles around the space outside a grand log lodge on Thompson Lake in Poland.
Golf carts buzz back and forth loading up gear and a child, and zipping away toward cabins. A few kids have parents trailing along.
It’s opening day at Camp POSTCARD.
POSTCARD stands for Police Officers Striving To Create And Reinforce Dreams. But the kids don’t know that. Most of them don’t know what camp really is — they’ve never been. Some have never been away from home overnight.
The campers are fifth- and sixth-graders from every county in Maine. They are chosen carefully.
“They are the most deserving kids,” Camp Director Michael Coon said.
Coon said more than 450 apply to come, all referred by guidance counselors or school resource officers, but the camp can only accommodate 165 this year. They choose campers based on need.
The need might arise because a child worked especially hard during the school year. Or, perhaps, they are in the middle of a very stressful time in their lives. Or, maybe the person referring them felt it would help the child overcome something in their life that was holding them back. Or they came last year and the experience had such an impact they can come back.
Only those making the decision as to who fills the slots know. The counselors don’t know who the children are or what their backgrounds involve. And they aren’t the only ones who don’t know everything.
Most of the campers don’t know that their counselors are cops.
The weeklong camp is held at Camp Agassiz.
This week the cabins are named after Maine counties, and there’s a Trooper cabin, a Game Warden cabin. The cabins house between 13 and 16 campers.
Each cabin has at least two counselors and one or two counselors in training. Although the campers are divided by sex, the leaders are not. So a boys’ cabin might have a male and a female leader, the same with the CITs.
There’s a large lodge/dining hall, a waterfront with docks and canoes and places to fish, broad expanses of grass for playing ball, a nurses’ cabin, archery and arts and crafts cabins and a GaGa ball “pit.”
What is GaGa ball? You may well ask and on this first day, most of the campers won’t be able to tell you. No one has ever heard of it. We’ll get to that later.
Tabitha Tlumac, 19, is in her third year as a CIT. She adeptly guides the boys to the Troopers cabin. Her father, Sam Tlumac, is a Maine State Police trooper based in Skowhegan. He has been coming to camp for nine years. They have 13 boys in their cabin.
Inside the walls are lined with bunk beds with bare mattresses. One by one, belongings are deposited on each by somewhat subdued young boys who have on brave faces.
The boys are told they must change into a suit for a swimming test. Not all look happy about it.
Each child has the same bag which has been given them upon arrival. It contains necessities such as a towel, shampoo, soap, toothbrush, deodorant and other items. If a child does not bring a sleeping bag, one is supplied, as are clothes and sneakers.
Everything given is new. New Balance, for example, has supplied hundreds of sneakers, Coon said. Walmart Distribution Center also donates goods.
And best of all, they get to take everything home with them.
No electronic devises — phones, tablets, laptops — are allowed.
As the campers arrive, they are instructed to leave their things outside and come into the lodge. They get a name tag and their name is checked off a master list. They wait for a nurse check and any meds they have are logged.
After the check they proceed to a table to give their name and have their photo taken. A formal ID is printed and attached to a lanyard which they must wear at all times. They get their cabin assignment.
From there, they line up for an iris scan. According to Rumford Sgt. Douglas Maifeld, who is conducting the scan with a curved black iris camera, the scan goes into the state data bank.
“It’s like having your child’s fingerprints taken like they used to do only this is much better — the eye has more identifiers unique to each person,” he explains. The campers just think it’s cool.
“I never heard of this camp,” Amanda Spicer of Wiscassett said, until he brought the paper home. His father said he’s pretty sure it will be a safe environment … “it’s one of the few places I don’t have to worry.”
Once all this is done, they get onto a golf cart with their belongings and are driven to their cabin.
Meanwhile, back at the cabins, those who have unpacked go in groups of three or four with a CIT down to the waterfront where the staff from the permanent camp test each camper to see what their swimming skills are. They are each given a colored wrist band much like a hospital band. The color tells the leaders and staff if the child can go in the deep end or needs to stay where their feet touch the bottom.
If they advance in their swimming skills over the week they might earn another color.
Each cabin of campers stands in line outside the dining hall before filing in to their assigned tables.
Lunch is served family style by the counselors and CITs and table manners are required as is verbal politeness.
The afternoon includes more swim testing, creating flags for each cabin and attending “icebreakers.”
Most of the campers don’t know each other, although some may know others in another cabin.
Around 4 p.m., they meet as a group with the leaders and, as a group, develop the rules for their cabin. Such things as no name calling, being helpful, no teasing are usually brought up by the campers.
Finally, it’s time for dinner. A few from each cabin, on a rotating basis, go to the lodge ahead of dinner to set the table.
After dinner the campers get free time, something that happens three times a day for two-and-a-half to three hours each. They can swim, fish, canoe, do arts and crafts or play land sports.
As for GaGa ball, enthusiasm for the game spreads through the camp like wildfire. The campers love it, maybe in part because the counselors get in there as well and we all know how much fun it is to get a leader “out!”
But what is it? You’ll have to ask a camper … it’s special to the camp, just like the campers and counselors.
By 8:30 p.m. all are back in their cabins readying for bed. By 9 p.m. it’s quiet time where they talk about their day, what they tried that was new and what was the best part of the day. By 9:15 p.m. it’s lights out.
By 9:30 p.m., inevitably, everyone is sound asleep; the nervousness and excitement of the day have worn them out.
The leaders gather at 9:30 p.m. to meet and discuss their day.
The e only difference between day one and two is the campers … and perhaps the noise level. No longer are they quiet and subdued. They are chatting and fooling around and there is an easy, relaxed, informal camaraderie among cabin mates and counselors.
After a 7 a.m. wake-up and showers, 8 a.m. breakfast and cabin cleaning, days two, three and four are similar with the exception of the after lunch free time. On day two it includes a climbing wall, obstacle course and fireman’s muster and on day four a book giveaway and science games. Oh, and baby goats on deck at the dining hall.
Days three and four include surprises such as a helicopter landing with the chance to sit in it, carnival day, and egg drop competition, a climbing wall and bungee, and a campfire complete with skits.
Day five is a biggy. It’s Demo Day, the campers’ favorite experience.
Around 9:30 a.m. big rigs start rolling down the dirt road, gathering in a paved area at the center of the camp. A fire engine, ambulance, swat team tank, bomb quad vehicle, Walmart tractor (without the trailer), ice cream truck, Game Warden trailer stuffed with stuffed animals — all seized from poachers, boats on trailers and a mobile crime unit.
For the next three hours the campers will rotate by cabin through each of the exhibits. They will get to try on the protective gear the bomb squad wears and watch its robots in action. They will climb aboard the swat team’s armored vehicle and pop their heads out the hatch on the roof. They will enter the mobile crime lab and learn what crime scene investigators do. They will watch a rope-tying demonstration that looks more like a magic show.
They will climb into the Walmart tractor cab for a view from a truck driver’s seat. They will enjoy ice cream and soda on draft, and perhaps have something interesting painted on their faces.
Then it’s lunchtime.
They line up for a meal served by none other than county sheriffs from across Maine who have attended their monthly Sheriff’s Association meeting at the camp. Although in full uniform, their wearing aprons and chef hats made by the campers.
Many are decorated with lace and most have writing on them. This makes for somewhat frilly sheriffs and softens their appearance. The kids love it.
After lunch, they hurry back to their cabins for daily inspection, but this day the sheriffs will be conducting the inspection.
The campers are nervous. Many have only experienced law enforcement in a negative way. Further, they line up like a military unit and stand at attention.
Groups of three of four sheriffs have three or four cabins on their inspection list. The campers breath a sigh of relief when they leave. The group mulls over what they have seen. They are supposed to rank the cabins on a 1-5 scale.
Arguments ensue over whether a cabin should get a 3 or a 3.5 or maybe even a 3.75.
Camp Assistant Director Rand Maker, chief deputy of the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, grumbles and tells them to get a move on … they have three more cabins to inspect.
In the afternoon there is a demonstration by Bath Police Cpl. Michelle Small and her K-9 Officer Sampson.
Day 6 begins like every other day but after lunch the campers assemble at the amphitheater. They are entertained by a magician provided by Oxford County Sheriff Wayne Gallant, president of the Maine Sheriffs Association.
When the performance is over the campers slowly realize something is happening behind them. Heads turn and off in the distance can be seem marching in step, a line of police officers.
Some of the campers just smile. For many, their mouths drop. These are their counselors, the leaders they beat at GaGa ball, the guy or girl they exchanged fake punches with and verbal sparring. Their counselors are cops.
After the formal march into the amphitheater, the counselors take the stage and announce cabin awards for such things such as Friendliest or Most Helpful.
The campers seem to know who will win in their cabin and are happy for their new friends.
Day seven is a cross between excitement and subdued. Today they go home.
For most campers it is bittersweet. They are happy to see their family and friends back home but sad to leave their new friends — campers and leaders alike. Phone numbers and emails are exchanged. A photo presentation is shown and then it’s time to board buses or go meet parents.
For the first time it starts to rain. Tear drops and rain drops mingle as campers say goodbye and head out.
Best of the best
By the end of camp the campers aren’t reticent to speak out. What was their favorite part of camp?
“I came out of my shell,” one girl said. “I loved it and made lots of friends.”
“I won the last GaGa of the year,” exclaims Tyler from Penobscot County. “It was my 20th win!”
“I sort of do sorta don’t” want to go home, he said.
“I’m going to miss fishing,” said Damien of Androscoggin County.
Sarah of Washington County said she likes “making new friends and trying new things” and Madison, also of Washington County, is delighted to have made a new friend (Sarah) “who only lives 30 minutes away!”
Abby of Lincoln County said Demo Day was her favorite part and Charlie of Kennebec County enjoyed making new friends, archery and swimming. “I am sad to go and would like to come again.”
Jiashaun of Cumberland County loved “making friendship bracelets” as he shows five of them on his arm. Colby of Oxford County said he loved Demo Day but “I forgot what Mom looks like.”
Hayden, also of Cumberland County, thinks GaGa ball is the best. “I’m really good (at it).” Philosophical, Hayden rationalizes that staying would cause him to miss family, friends and his phone but leaving will cause him to miss friends, GaGa and counselors.
Zachary of Lincoln County said, “I will miss all of it. I am sad to go, there’s a lot of fun stuff.
William of York County said he is looking forward to sleeping and quiet, and Aiden of Oxford County said he will miss GaGa and swimming. He noted he got an award for the “Biggest Smile.”
Twenty-four years ago then state police Trooper Christine Buchanan and Hancock County Deputy Sheriff Scott Kane joined forces and founded the camp. Today Chris rides around on a golf cart running errands and ensuring all is well.
Hancock County Sheriff Deputy Luke Gross has been a leader at the camp for 17 years. “(Doing this) reinforces compassion and understanding” on the job. “I am better at my job, I am better at home and I am better as a parent.”
Oxford County Deputy Christina Sugars, who is a school resource officer for the Sacopee Valley district, said leaving is bittersweet. “I have a great time here but I have kids at home.”
Sugars said, “Dealing with kids, they (now) know cops are people and they see us in a different light.”
Gorham Police school resource officer Michael Coffin said he’s sad to go, but the next week he’s taking freshmen boys on a three-day rafting trip, then the following week, freshmen girls and then a weeklong “cop camp” for the department.
According to Coon, one camper from the past has become a dispatcher and another a firefighter … that they know of.
Next year is the 25th anniversary of Camp POSTCARD and Coon hopes to reach out through the media and get alumni campers back for a reunion.
Tim Holland, Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School school resource officer, retired sheriff’s deputy and Paris police officer, has been coming to the camp for years.
“My feet are sore and my back is sore,” he said, but adds it’s worth it.
“We make a change in a lot of these kids … kids feel they have accomplished something,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot from the kids. It makes you a good cop to do this. It makes you a good parent. It makes you realize what it’s all about.”
Holland said he uses his years of experience at the camp “every day as an SRO. Some of the kids at OHCHS have told me they wish they could go back (to camp).”
Coon said they are always in need of leaders. They can be local, state or county cops, dispatchers, game wardens, corrections officers, firefighters and EMTs. Most are paid their regular salary by their departments while at camp. A few use vacation.
Some of the CITs used to be campers.
Paige Wentworth, 17, and Delaney Gardner, 20, of Washington County have been best friends since they were little. They have also been campers and are now CITs.
In all the campers you see an impact, they said.
Some, they said, don’t know how to set a table or eat together at a table and not in the living room.
The CITs recalled one girl said, “‘I am going to do this (eating together at the table) at home with my brother and sister. I like this.'”
The overweight boy or taller-than-her-peers girl disappear and become the friend who helped you master a new skill or the buddy you want to keep in touch with after camp. Every camper fits in and they each know it. For one glorious week they have no worry, no stress, no insecurity. They can simply be.
In fact, walking around, listening and watching — admittedly a bit wistfully — the entire camp looks like a fun and inspiring experience.
Cops? Don’t see any, just a bunch of goofy adults having fun. Kids? A lot of them are having the time of their lives.
Camp POSTCARD is a joint effort among the Maine Sheriffs Association, the Maine D.A.R.E.® Officers Association and Volunteers of America. Since its inception 24 years ago, more than 3,000 Maine children have attended.
Camp POSTCARD began in northern New England and has spread to Wyoming, Montana and Colorado.
Volunteers of America has years of experience running Fresh Air camps.
Campers and counselors live together as a family. Campers who might struggle in a traditional camp setting thrive at POSTCARD.
Law enforcement officers band together as a team. Friendships form that enhance community policing.
The camp is free for every camper. Funds are raised throughout the year by Volunteers of America and the Maine Sheriffs Association. It also depends on the generosity of sponsors and donations including: Norway Savings Bank, Walmart Distribution Center, Hannaford, Anthem Blue Cross, New Balance and Olympia Sports.