NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- Sending 35 kids down class 3 rapids may not sound like a great idea, but the group of 11- to 13-year-olds that made up the New Experiences camp last week easily handled it by working together as a team.
Of course, they also had an experienced river guide in each raft, and a raft full of police officers and members of the National Guard were on hand, too.
Bennington Police Officer Andy Hunt, who coordinated this year's camp, along with other members of his department, the Bennington County Sheriff's Department and the Vermont National Guard, said campers spent the week learning about various tasks performed by first responders. They also learned life skills along the way, and gained confidence, he said.
"It was a good week. A good learning adventure for them, even for the kids that came last year. They do some of the same stuff, but there's always new stuff going on every year. We try to change things up a little bit for them," Hunt said. "They get a sense of knowing they can do things that they didn't know they could do before. Absolutely. And, they get to explore a few different aspects that maybe they hadn't thought about -- law enforcement, military or firefighting."
Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette said the camp also teaches discipline and accountability. The group must work well together to accomplish tasks. And campers that misbehave must answer to the whole group, because consequences are assessed to the group as a whole, he said.
"They get a sense of teamwork -- learning and realizing what's it's like as a team and getting things accomplished. When they did things well they flourished. When a couple of them did things that weren't quite appropriate, they all were penalized for it, so they had to come together and work as a team in order to be successful," he said.
Each of the 35 campers -- the largest class so far for the annual summer camp -- made new friends, too, Doucette said.
"At the beginning of the week, unless they already knew someone, they were sitting by themselves. And now, they're all doing what we expected them to be doing, which is having a good time and enjoying each others company," he said. "We even had one kid who went home and told his parents that being in the New Experiences camp was better than going to Disney."
Early in the week campers learned how use a spike stripe and deflate the tires of a vehicle during a pursuit. They also learned about crime scenes, and how to process them. On Wednesday the camp traveled to Pittsford, home of the Vermont Police and Fire Academies. They received a tour from its director, Richard Gauthier, the former chief of the Bennington Police Department.
Thursday's trip, however, to Zoar Outdoor in Charlemont, Mass., seemed to be the highlight of the weekend for most campers. Casidy Danforth, 12, seemed to be a budding adventure junky. She said her favorite part of the day was being in the big rapids.
Twelve-year-old Colleen Ahearn was a bit more reserved. "It was really fun, but kind of scary," she admitted.
Ahearn said the camp was a highlight of her summer break. "We go different places that you probably wouldn't go to," she said.
The campers boarded A Vermont National Guard bus early Thursday for their whitewater adventure. After reaching the site, the 35 kids milled about for a while, filled with nervous energy and excitement. Hunt and fellow counselors quickly moved them onto calisthenics.
After some pushups they moved on to leg lifts, which was not a crowd favorite.
"Why? What did we do wrong?" one of the girls called out.
Soon enough the campers grabbed their life vests, helmets and paddles and boarded a bus to head upstream. Then it was time to hop on the Deerfield River. The dam releases water several times a week, creating faster moving water and up to class 3 rapids. The campers followed commands from their guides to navigate through the rapids.
There were no major problems, just a few campers who were pitched out of their rafts only to be plucked from the water a few moments later. The campers also enjoyed swimming during the river's calm stretches, and "water wars," when they could splash each other or toss buckets of water at othe rafts.
The camp ended Friday following a day at the Hale Mountain Fish and Game Club. The campers learned firearms safety, and had a chance to shoot a variety of guns, including rifles, shotguns and pistols.
Megan Henry, 12, said she favored the semi-automatic rifle. She claimed to hit the target before pausing, and thinking. "Actually, I have no idea," she said.
Hunt said some of the campers were already talking about next year's camp. "I think they thoroughly enjoyed themselves, and we enjoy ourselves, working with the kids," he said.
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