For 12-year-old Ansley Garrison, getting a chance to sit inside the cockpit of an Army National Guard helicopter Wednesday was "awesome."
"This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen," said Garrison, a rising seventh-grader at Chestatee Middle School. She also took time to check out the Hall County Sheriff’s Office SWAT van and mobile command unit during Wednesday’s cookout for Advance Camp kids at Laurel Park.
"I thought this was going to be boring, but it’s a lot more fun than I thought," she said.
Nearly 280 Hall County kids who recently finished the fifth and sixth grades are taking part this week in the ninth annual summer day camp, put on by the Hall County Sheriff’s Office through in-kind contributions and donations made by Hall County businesses and individuals.
The camp, which costs up to $14,000 a year to operate, is completely supported by community contributions. Lake Lanier Islands alone is donating close to 350 one-day passes for Friday’s beach day and Free Chapel Worship Center provides meeting space.
Tuesday, the sheriff’s partners in public safety, including Gainesville police, Hall County fire, the Georgia State Patrol and state Department of Natural Resources, were on hand to show off their emergency vehicles and high-tech hardware. Children’s eyes lit up at the sight of a helicopter fly-in by the state patrol and Army.
The weeklong camp’s attendees are selected by a drawing at their respective schools. In all, between 1,800 and 2,000 fifth-graders go through the sheriff’s Advance class, a 10-week course that teaches Internet safety, self-protection, the consequences of drug use and how to resist gang activity.
One goal of this week’s camp is to give graduating fifth-graders an opportunity to meet and make friends with future classmates they’ll see this fall in middle school.
"It gives them a chance for some positive relationship-building as they move into that next level of education at middle school, where they’ll face more challenges," said Hall County Sheriff Steve Cronic, who implemented the Advance program as a replacement for DARE. "They need all the tools they can get to cope with the peer pressures and stay on the right track."
Said 10-year-old Briana Johnson, "you learn what not to do at an early age."
Lt. Gene Joy, commander of the sheriff’s school-based programs unit, said the fact that the camp can be held each year without using a dime of taxpayer money is a tribute to Hall County.
"It’s great to see community leaders come together to make possible an event like this, people who want to make a difference in young people’s lives," Joy said.