Summer outlet-- Camp program helps area boys, girls DEFY the odds


By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

They come from neighborhoods where things that go bump in the night might very well be bullets and bodies, and are surrounded by drugs, despair, and gangs.

But after graduating from the 14th annual DEFY program, held at Camp Copneconic in Fenton, these kids learned some of those night noises came from owls, frogs, insects and other woodland creatures, or from waves lapping gently on the shores of Lake Copneconic.

"It's amazing, considering the environment they come from is so much more dangerous than what they're exposed to here, and they're afraid," said Lori Riggs, the community resource specialist from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Michigan.

Her office is hosting the DEFY (Drug Education for Youth) camp, along with a host of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, as well as some staff from Camp Copneconic. The camp welcomed 97 children--43 boys and 54 girls--between the ages of 9- to 12, who attended the DEFY program August 16 through 20.

The youth come from Flint, Saginaw and several sections of the greater Detroit area, such as Hamtramck, Inkster, and Highland Park. They experience a structured and fun-filled educational program, and hopefully, take those back lessons learned to their neighborhoods to help others, Riggs said.

According to information supplied by the Department of Justice, the DEFY program was developed in 1993 through a Navy task force aimed at reducing drugs. It also was geared toward helping at-risk children improve personal relationships, teach them drug awareness, and help them in all areas of their life.

The DOJ adopted the Navy model and implemented it through Weed & Seed sites, where those at-risk kids are located.

The Weed & Seed movement, started in 1991, is a community-driven strategy to "weed" out crime and social disorder from the community and then "seed" it with positive influences which not only strengthens the community, but also the residents who live there.

Weed & Seed programs incorporate many factions of a community, recognizing the importance of a collaboration between local, county, state and federal law enforcement agencies in partnership with human service agencies, community resources, businesses and churches in working closely to address and solve the problem facing youth.

There are about 300 Weed & Seed sites nationally, with a handful of those located in southeastern Michigan. The entire program is made possible by the direction of the DOJ, and this particular program is overseen by Barbara McQuade, from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Michigan.

DEFY is a year-long program for youth, which encourages physical fitness, self-esteem, drug awareness and prevention, and goal-setting. It's designed to reinforce positive values at a young age, and teach important life skills to help youngsters resist illegal drugs and grow to become happy, healthy and productive adults.

It consists of two phases. Phase 1 is the six-day summer camp experience, and Phase 2 continues into the school year, follows up with 10 months of continued mentoring, which includes monthly drug education meetings, field trips, community service and special activities to reinforce the lessons learned during the summer camp. Funding for DEFY comes in the form of grants from the DOJ provided to Weed & Seed sites and Project Safe Neighborhoods, Riggs said.

For the first dozen years, DEFY was held at the Selfridge Air National Guard Base near Mount Clemens, but moved to the YMCA-affiliated Camp Copneconic about three years ago. DEFY was, until this year, a day camp program only. This year the campers spent the entire five days there, sleeping in on-site housing and being fed three solid meals each day.

Camp Copneconic was established in 1915 by the YMCA of Greater Flint, and billed itself as providing kids the chance to leave their concrete environment behind--and their video games, computers and televisions--and delve into the great outdoors to make new friends, learn new skills, become more self-reliant and play together in the pristine grounds of a natural environment.

Riggs said the camp experience is very foreign to many of these kids, but they come to enjoy it immensely by the end of the week.

The days follow a similar pattern. During the morning, the campers attend special classes on topics such as substance abuse prevention, gang awareness and taking the perceived shine off of being in gangs, self-esteem building, goal setting, citizenship, hygiene, safety and first aid, and conflict resolution.

During the afternoon, they enjoy the outdoor activities, which include canoeing, kayaking, archery, swimming, zip lining, swimming and other physical fitness activities.

The kids are broken into smaller groups at the beginning of the week, and select their own team names and colors, which helps them build cohesiveness. Each group has a team leader--usually a member of one of the many law enforcement agencies present--who stays with them.

The groups rotate through each segment of the morning classes and afternoon activities, so that by the end of the week, the campers have experienced the full program.

The agencies involved provide personnel as mentors, and instructors come from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives, the Bureau of Prisons, Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Flint, Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Flint, the Camp Copneconic staff, Detroit Police Department, Drug Enforcement Administration, Federal Air Marshal, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Marshal's Service, and the Weed & Seed sites.

Toward the end of the week, most of those agencies provide a demonstration of what they do and some techniques.

Riggs works behind the scenes with Nancy Abraham, an assistant U.S. attorney with the Flint office, making sure schedules are meet, answering questions from parents, handling the occasional problem, and generally making sure everyone is where they need to be when they need to be. Those two are truly the unsung heroes of the week.

Riggs knows the program inside out, front to back, and has been involved at the entry level as a Weed & Seed site director to her current supervisory role.

"The best part of it is these kids get an opportunity to spend the day with these professionals from the agencies in a very structured curriculum, focusing on team building, mental and physical well-being and other things," she said.

The benefits are visible, too. Riggs said parents she sees later tell her that their children have changed for the better after the camp experience.

Richard Engelman, a Camp Copneconic administrator, said he sees a vast difference in the kids from day 1 to the Friday graduation.

"There is a huge improvement," he said. "They become more cohesive in their groups, and the behavior really improves."

Proof of that team spirit is visible, and very audible. Many of these kids have never experienced activities such as kayaking, canoeing, or zip lining. Riggs said the mentors and other team members shout words of encouragement to those kids who are a little mystified, and frightened, of trying some of these things for the first time. One small boy was crying as he walked uncertainly to the edge of the zip line platform, but took the plunge as others shouted "You can do it!" Afterward, he also tried to help other friends who were leery about riding the thin zip line down, 50 feet in the air above a small creek and rocks.

Two Detroit policemen involved with the program who worked their way up from mentors to team leaders are sold on the benefits of the DEFY Camp. Dale Dorsey said he has seen these kids create solid relationships.

"They remember this camp, and never forget it," he said.

Tyrine Wheatley, now in his third year at the camp, said he sees the youngsters grow, work together and show pride in their accomplishments. He said it's also important for the kids to get a positive vision of police, and not view them as the enemy.

"We have the opportunity to show kids a different side of law enforcement, and that makes our job easier," he said.

Both he and Dorsey said they've run into camp kids years later, and they appear to have greatly benefited from the program.

Engelman agrees. He said the camp-goers obtain "a better understanding of police and authority figures." He said the children appear timid on Monday as camp begins, but by Friday they look up to their leaders "and many don't want to leave."

Tkeshawn Cannon, 9, of Saginaw, said she enjoys archery and the canoeing, and also has learned to say no to drugs. She promised to help her friends at home after she leaves to do the right thing. Cannon said she hopes that when her friends have children, "they can teach their kids right from wrong."

Quinyah King, 11, of Detroit, said she's learned strategies on how to solve problems and drug awareness, as well as confidence.

"I was scared at the zip line, but I got motivation from the counselors and the group," she said.

Riggs said it's all about building relationships with the kids, something many have not had before.

"If you get them early on and show them a path, and teach skills to say no to drugs, avoid conflicts and gun awareness, even if they only remember a little bit, you've planted a seed, and hopefully they'll follow the right path and make the right choices."

Published: Thu, Sep 2, 2010