The first time Sophia Mascarena attended Camp P.O.S.T.C.A.R.D. (Peace Officers Striving To Create And Reinforce Dreams), she was scared. She didn’t want to be so far away from home.
Mascarena was skeptical of the activities she had never done and people she had never met.
But by the end of the weeklong camp, Mascarena couldn’t believe the tears shed by campers as everyone said goodbye.
“The last night at camp, officers gave out different awards to everyone and we had to say goodbye,” Mascarena said. “At the beginning of the week you don’t know anyone, but by the end of the week, you are in tears with everyone that you have met.”
Now, 15-year-old Mascarena is ready to return.
“I wanted to go back as soon as I was old enough,” Mascarena said. “I was encouraged to get out of my comfort zone experience and meet new people my age from around the state.”
This month Mascarena will return to camp as a junior mentor. She will be there along will fellow junior mentors, campers and peace officers.
The camp put on by Volunteers of America Northern Rockies, is offered each summer for select Montana fifth- and sixth-graders at the Beartooth Mountain Christian Camp near Nye.
Recently, municipal and county law enforcement officers raised $9,500 for a special fund for the camp. Law enforcement members participated in the raffle ticket fundraiser to finance money for students who bring little to camp.
Even though the camp is free for students, some come to camp with the inability to provide certain supplies for themselves, such as sleeping bags, proper clothing and other provisions. The officer-raised fund is available so camp volunteers can provide essentials to the kids during the week they are there.
Officer Karl Rude of the Billings Police Department volunteered for the camp the last few years. He said the camp can help to instill lasting positive effects on the students.
“The camp is an excellent opportunity to have a long-term effect on the kids,” Rude said. “The ability to teach those lessons is a reason why many people got into law enforcement.”
Even after the camp, Mascarena and Rude have kept in contact.
"He has been such a help and he still looks out for me," Mascarena said. "He sees how far I have come from when I was younger."
The program began in Wyoming and has grown to include Montana.
Officer Dan Brown of the Billings Police Department, who volunteered in Wyoming, said that the program is a good opportunity for students who can benefit from guidance.
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“Getting to work with kids and see positive results in a week is something that not many people get to see,” Brown said. “We give students the opportunity to do what is right, whether or not anyone is watching.”
The camp is designed for students that have leadership qualities, but may never have the opportunity to go to a camp of this caliber due to financial reasons. Also, the students may have the ability to excel in life, but could also be heading in the wrong direction.
Mascarena was the only girl in her group when she attended camp as a 12-year-old, but she adjusted right away. Camp taught her some valuable lessons.
“In a group you don’t always have to be the front man,” Mascarena said. “More than anything, I learned that it’s OK to ask for help.”
Counselors and school officials in different school districts throughout the state select students that they feel would benefit from the camp.
Rude said sometimes these students can be straight-A students and some can be troubled.
“The kids are at the age where they can be most susceptible to peer pressure,” Rude said. “We are there to show them the effects of positive change.”
The campers don't only learn about leadership, they learn the typical outdoors camping activities.
When she was learning fly fish, Mascarena said that she was frustrated because she had no idea how to do it.
“I couldn’t figure out how to fly fish well,” Mascarena said. “Of course the police officers were good at it, but they taught at a pace so I could learn. They eased me into it.”
While the camp does not cover the whole state, Brown said that the program is growing.
“The program is working towards getting across the state,” Brown said. “We want to inform other agencies throughout the state and be able to connect with them as best we can to spread the camp to other areas.”
The camp is funded mostly by donations and trust funds. Rude said that there is always a need for further community support.
“If members of the community want to promote civic responsibility to kids, this camp is a great way to do it,” Rude said.
Donations for the camp can be made to the Northern Rockies chapter of Volunteers of America. For more information, go to www.voanr.org/.