More than 50 Merrimack Valley youth will go back to school with unique summer vacation stories, having spent a week at the Essex County Sheriff’s Department Youth Academy.
Elementary and high school students from across the Valley participated in an immersive weeklong program that took kids from Haverhill, Georgetown and Groveland inside the Middleton House of Corrections.
The local campers – grouped into ages 8-11 and ages 12-15 – were bussed from J.G. Whittier Middle School for the sessions, overseen by four Sheriff’s Department correctional officers including Jackie Orlando.
Funded through HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas) and the Sheriff’s Department, the Youth Academy aims to build leadership, team building and confidence skills. This summer, area participants completed a ropes course at Essex Technical High School in Danvers and learned about water safety from the U.S. Coast Guard stationed in Newburyport, among other activities.
One of the highlights of the program, Officer Orlando tells WHAV, is when teenage campers entered the Middleton House of Corrections to meet with inmates. During their session, Valley campers toured the facility’s control room before participating in a Q&A with two men who are currently incarcerated.
“We have one inmate who’s done half of his life at the Essex County Sheriff’s Department and state prisons and another inmate [serving] his first time in jail. We teach the kids that [jail] doesn’t discriminate,” Orlando explains, adding that campers are given a primer on gangs and how to be aware of their surroundings. “The inmates talked about their childhood struggles and always being a follower and never saying ‘No.’ They told the kids, ‘If I didn’t take that first hit of marijuana or drink underage, I probably wouldn’t have gotten here. If only I listened to my parents and teachers. If I had this camp, I probably wouldn’t be here.’”
Orlando told WHAV she was impressed with the younger campers’ ability to retain information pertaining to CPR and cyber safety.
“The most rewarding thing for me is to see the kids grow up and see that you’ve instilled something in them. Often, returning campers who learned about anti-bullying will tell us that they saw bullying at their school and told a teacher, or called 911 in an emergency and didn’t panic. How can that not be rewarding?” she said.