POLAND – Every year, Nick Meserve looks forward to the middle of June.

Lewiston police officer Nick Meserve stands with a Camp Postcard camper from a past year. (Photo courtesy of Nick Meserve)

A Lewiston police officer, he just can’t wait to see those 165 screaming kids from every county in Maine. And the 75 or so sheriff deputies, state troopers, wardens, firefighters, prison guards and medics.

Not to mention the helicopter, sea plane, police dogs, fire trucks, bomb robot and boats that descend on Camp Agassiz each year.

By the time Camp Postcard rolls into Maine, Meserve has his bags packed and he’s ready to go.

“I go all week, every year,” he says. “It’s my favorite week of the year.”

Camp Postcard, celebrating its 25th year, is a free weeklong program for Maine kids. At this camp, the counselors are cops, firefighters and wardens. They come together to mentor and encourage kids – the goal being to improve their perception of law enforcement.

“We do typical camp things: fishing, swimming, arts and crafts, sports – you name it,” says Michael Coon, vice president of relations at Volunteers of America, which runs the program. “We’ve found that low-barrier days of having fun with the kids allows them to feel comfortable with the officers and open up and share. Lifelong connections are made.”

Meserve can attest to that. As a Lewiston cop, he already sees a fair amount of raucousness on a daily basis. You’d think that in that line of work, a guy would want a little quiet, but not Meserve. That week at Camp Agassiz, he says, serves as a reminder of why he became a police officer in the first place.

“As a cop you get burnt out,” Meserve says, “and every year I go, I leave refreshed because you hear some of these kids’ stories when they start to warm up and confide in you – it’s heart wrenching what they’ve been through, so it reminds me of why I do it.”

The Postcard campers are fifth- and sixth-graders from around the state who have been invited by a school resource officer or guidance counselor. Some of the children who attend are there because they have made great achievements during the most recent school year. Many are there because they’re going through hard times.

“There are too many like them without a voice,” Meserve says, “who need me to speak up for them. . . . I’ve met some kids from our area that I’ve continued to have a friendship with.”

For police, the connections made with the children are important. They see it as a way to demonstrate to area youth that cops can be trusted – that outside of work, they are just people.

“It’s a good opportunity for kids throughout the state that may never have chances like this,” says Androscoggin County Sheriff Eric Samson, who also participates in the camp program, “and it’s good for law enforcement to be involved as some of these kids we may never meet and some may see us from a different perspective.”

From June 16 until June 22 this year, kids will fish, swim and boat. They will play ball, run an obstacle course, build things and indulge in a little science. For many, it will be a week of firsts.

“Some kids come from very busy families who might not always have the time to spend with them,” says Coon. “At camp, kids get the attention they need.”

The kids will be broken up into groups of a dozen or so and assigned to cabins, along with three or four camp counselors – cops, firefighters, wardens, etc.

“I really think it’s a great way for kids to realize these are real people,” says Rumford magician Scot Grassette, who has performed for the kids of Camp Postcard. “They encourage friendship, teamwork, and reward kids who help others.”

As it happens, Grassette’s performance is about more than mere entertainment. He’s helping the program organizers to make a grander point at the end of the busy week.

“On Thursday, the last full day of camp, we gather the kids together in the amphitheater,” Coon explains. “The kids know from the start of camp that their counselors are from law enforcement, but all week everyone’s in shorts and T-shirts. At the Thursday event, they step away – the kids don’t know why; we distract them with a magic show – and then the officers all march in dressed in their uniforms.

“This is the first time the kids get to see the officers they made friends with in their professional uniforms. It’s a very moving moment – one we hope resonates with the kids when they go back home – when they see a police officer, they can think ‘There’s someone I can trust if I need help.'”

The cabin groups at the end-of-week event also give their top campers awards for things like trying something new or showing leadership.

“It’s very impressive,” Grassette acknowledges, “and most of the kids are in awe of the whole ceremony.”

The program never has trouble rounding up volunteer counselors from the emergency services. Along with Meserve, Lewiston police Detective Danielle Murphy typically heads to the camp to bunk with the kids.

Auburn usually sends an officer or two, as does the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Department and agencies spanning the entire state, from the northern tip of Maine to its southern border.

Frankly, it’s hard to say who gets more excited about the week, the cops or the kids.

“It’s a great experience all around,” says Meserve.

Camp Postcard campers take to the water in this photo from a past year. (Courtesy of Nick Meserve)

Androscoggin County Sheriff Eric Samson talks with a Camp Postcard camper in this photo from a previous camp. (Courtesy of Claudia Murray)

Campers and volunteers from a previous Camp Postcard gather for a photo. (Courtesy of Michael Coon)

The dining hall is a favorite place at any camp including Camp Postcard. (Photo courtesy of Michael Coon)

Camp Postcard’s many volunteers march in uniform on the final day of camp in this photo from a previous year. (Courtesy of Michael Coon)

A Camp Postcard flyer. (Courtesy of Michael Coon)

The history of Camp Postcard

“Camp POSTCARD (Police Officers Striving to Create and Reinforce Dreams) was founded in 1994 when Scott Kane of the Maine Sheriffs Association and Christine Buchanan of the Maine DARE Officers Association approached June Koegel, Volunteers of America President and CEO. Fifth- and sixth-grade students needed something to do in the summer, and law enforcement departments wanted to make a difference in kids’ lives.”

The camp includes kids:

* who have experienced a significant loss or trauma in their family;

* who have ADD/ADHD issues and take medication that may prevent them from doing well in a traditional camp;

* whose families cannot afford to send them to camp;

* who are being rewarded for significant improvements in their behavior or academic performance in school;

* who have a parent who is incarcerated;

* who struggle to fit in at school.

According to need, some children leave camp with a new warm sleeping bag, pillow, new clothes and shoes, and a backpack filled with school supplies for the following year.

Source: Michael Coon: vice president of External Relations for Volunteers of America Northern New England

“As a cop you get burnt out, and every year I go (to Camp Postcard), I leave refreshed because you hear some of these kids’ stories when they start to warm up and confide in you – it’s heart wrenching what they’ve been through, so it reminds me of why I do it.”

— Lewiston police officer Nick Meserve