Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Kids with wardens putting on life jackets © Joanne M. Haas

The Concerns of Police Survivors (C.O.P.S.) provides resources to help them rebuild their shattered lives. DNR conservation wardens play an important role in the Wisconsin camp.
© Joanne M. Haas

August 2013

C.O.P.S. Camp and conservation wardens

A week of safety, comfort and fun for kids in search of peace.

Joanne M. Haas

Maybe it was almost losing his toddler son two years ago to a surgery. Maybe it was slamming into the reality that he would never again fish or laugh so hard it hurts with some of the kids who have taught him how to be a better dad and husband, a better person and a better conservation warden.

Whatever it was, 2012 was different for conservation warden Tim Price at the annual Concerns of Police Survivors (C.O.P.S.) Camp for Kids in East Troy. Last year, the guy who doesn't cry, did. And it was the wise children he's known for nine years who comforted him — the man they affectionately call Uncle Tim.

"This is the most rewarding thing I've done as a warden. It is hard to explain unless you experience it for yourself. We have some of the same wardens who keep coming back year after year, and each warden has their own reason for it," Price says, pledging to return every year to work the late summer camp for children from across the country linked by one thing. Each has lost a law enforcement parent in the line of duty.

And some have experienced a society not sure how to handle them as a family hit by the worst–case scenario.

Kerrie Johnson, of Vermont, and her son were among those longtime campers Price had to say farewell to on August 5 – the last day of camp. Johnson's youngest son, at 14, will be too old to attend the camp again.

"My kid is so at peace it is just crazy," says Johnson, whose husband was killed in 2003 when he was run over by a drug dealer. Their children were 5, 7 and 9 when she got the call. It's been tough.

It was Johnson's older son who nicknamed the Eagle River warden as his uncle years ago under circumstances neither she nor Price can recall. It doesn't matter – it stuck. As another mother said, "Families are formed at the camp – and bloodlines have nothing to do with it."

The law enforcement community is a family that will support one another through the good times as well as the bad. Regional warden Kevin Mickelberg of Milwaukee feels it every day.

"I know that each day that I go to work it may be my last. It gives me great comfort knowing that my children and wife will be cared for and supported by this law enforcement family if something were to happen to me," Mickelberg says.

It also is the sense of fitting in with others like you, feeling safe enough to just be yourself – and playing with another kid who just gets it.

As Warden Supervisor Jennifer Niemeyer of Racine put it: "It's a grief camp but you'd never know it."

Nearly 30-year-old camp growing every year

Created in 1984 with 110 members, Concerns of Police Survivors Inc. (C.O.P.S.) supports the families, friends and co-workers of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty, as well as training to law enforcement agencies on survivor victimization issues and public education. More than 15,000 families belong to C.O.P.S. There is no membership fee.

The C.O.P.S. Summer Camp for Kids has been held at the Salvation Army Camp in East Troy since 2004. The 2012 camp served about 160 survivor children ages 6 to 14 and about 100 surviving spouses, grandparents and other adults. In addition, 40 support staff provided daily counseling sessions and law enforcement agencies sent mentors.

There is no charge to attend. C.O.P.S. covers the costs through fundraising efforts nationwide and attendees only cover their travel costs.

Mickelberg says wardens are honored to have the kids' summer camp in Wisconsin. "Our wardens understand that many of these kids no longer have the opportunity to be exposed to the outdoor world since their father was taken from them.

"For many of these children, it is the first time that they have been taken fishing, boating or shooting a gun or bow," he says. "This is one small way to support these families that have made the ultimate sacrifice."

Uncle Tim gets a reality check

Price was the conservation warden based in East Troy when the national group moved its summer camp from Missouri to Wisconsin in 2004. And he has shepherded it through challenges, changes and growth. In 2012, there were 22 wardens on site every day thanks to a slated deployment schedule.

Price also has been instrumental in making sure there are various activity stations for the campers. These include fishing, canoeing, .22-caliber rifle shooting, pellet guns, boating safety, archery and T-shirt printing.

"A person has to step back and reflect on what they are actually going through," Price says of the campers. "This is the first year that I was part of the counseling group for the 14–year – olds."

It was especially difficult and surprisingly emotional for Price, he says.

Price has always led the fishing part of the camp. "I can't tell you how many times I've heard that the boat at home hasn't left the garage and still has a cover on it since they had their loss," he says. "And when we're done, sometimes the mom says, ‘When we get home, we're taking the cover off that boat and going fishing."

The camp is a world all by itself, he says.

"These folks, they are on an island and they're all on it together. They all understand each other. When they all get back to their respective communities, their friends will never understand, nor will I understand. But I understand more than the average folks."

Night terrors replaced with sleep

Jennifer Thacker lost her husband in 1998 when she was the young mother of a then-18-month-old. She says children-survivors often want to sleep with the surviving parent.

"It's about safety – their sense of safety is very shaken," says Thacker, who attended camps as a survivor for years before becoming the C.O.P.S. national outreach director in 2010.

When a parent is violently taken, the sense of security – well–being – is severely rocked, she says.

She explains it as the case of the child who sees their now–deceased parent as the one who protected people from the bad guys – but a bad guy took out the parent. Now, the child wonders when the bad guy will come after him or the surviving parent.

"So when the child comes to camp, it is often the first time that child will sleep apart from that parent," she says.

Mentors are present in all sleep areas – but anxiety can remain. In one of the girls' cabins one year, the idea of a restful sleep was impossible.

"The mentor in that cabin was a police officer," Thacker says of that night. "The girls were surprised the woman was an officer."

"Girls," the officer told them. "I've got it covered."

And the girls got their sense of safety and slept that night.

Thacker says another thing kids learn so early is that society shows it is unacceptable to speak of a dead parent. She recalls one mother telling the story of how she put her toddler on the counter at a store and the child immediately told the clerk, matter–of–factly, "My dad is dead." The clerk ignored the child and pretended not to hear.

"That child is being told, indirectly, that it is unacceptable to talk about these things."

"The goal of the C.O.P.S. Kids Camp is for campers to leave with a continuing support system, sense of personal growth, self-awareness for the future and likely some lifelong friendships.
©Joanne M. Haas

Cody and Emily

Emily met her husband in high school. The Indiana couple married when they were 20. The following year Emily's husband, a law enforcement officer, was killed while on duty. Emily was 21 and four months pregnant with their son, Cody.

Emily attended their first C.O.P.S. Camp for Kids when Cody was 6 – the youngest age campers can attend.

From a small community, Emily had support from family. She thought everything was moving along fine for the two. But she realized that wasn't accurate when the pair attended the morning therapy sessions, which are daily gatherings at the camp.

"He (Cody) said things in group that I had not heard him say before," Emily says. She also remembers how she watched the kids interact at the first camp.

"Kids just talk. ‘How did your dad die?' they'd ask each other,'" Emily says. "I remember when Cody came up and said, ‘Hey, see this kid? This kid doesn't have a dad either. We're gonna go play, OK?"

Cody has since started pitching for baseball.

"My dad would have been proud," Cody, 12, says. Emily nods.

This year, as it sounds all years, has been another keeper. Cody won the trophy for his skill at the .22-caliber rifle station. "I always wanted to win," he says.

Emily has remarried and given birth to two more children. But the other families she has met at the camp also have become her "lifelong family members" without question.

Emily has purchased a .22-caliber rifle for her husband. And it may come to camp with Cody sometime.

"The warden said because we drive we can bring it," Cody says. "Uncle Tim will be here, too."

No doubt about it.

This years's C.O.P.S. Camp for Kids runs July 29 through Aug. 4. Visit: nationalcops.org/ for infomation.

Joanne M. Haas is a public affairs manager for DNR’s Bureau of Law Enforcement.