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Kids learn how to stay out of harm's way through teamwork
Kiana Mitchell, right, 11, and Lydia Libasci, middle, 8, watch as Levi Libasci, 10, passes through a hula hoop as part of the Advance Camp at Laurel Park Tuesday. The camp was hosted by the Hall County Sheriff’s Office. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Hannah Gilbert first attended what is now called Advance Camp seven years ago, as a 9-year-old elementary school student learning about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.

The name may have changed, but the water rides, roller-skating, cookouts and kickball games remain the same.

"I have a lot of good memories," said Gilbert, now a 16-year-old high school student who serves as a volunteer counselor for the weeklong summer day camp put on by the Hall County Sheriff’s Office. "I’ve met so many people from so many different schools, and I’ve kept those friendships."

This week marks the eighth annual summer camp for students of the Advance program, the youth education outreach program that replaced D.A.R.E. four years ago. On Tuesday, about 250 kids frolicked in fountains, swung their hips through Hula Hoops and hopped along in sack races at Laurel Park.

"Today’s about fun," said Sheriff Steve Cronic.

The weeklong summer camp combines refresher courses on the material covered in the county’s fifth-grade classes — including Internet safety, water safety and the consequences of tobacco use — along with team-building activities like soccer and basketball.

Many of the day campers, mostly those entering sixth grade in the fall, are from different schools and are just starting to forge friendships. There are 20 K-5 elementary schools that feed students into Hall County’s six middle schools.

"We hope to build some camaraderie and friendships that will benefit them as they move into middle school and eventually high school," Cronic said.

Lt. Gene Joy, who heads up the sheriff’s Advance program, said the focus is letting campers "form these positive relationships with other children before they move on to middle school in the fall."

Many of the participants would not ordinarily have the chance to enroll in a summer day camp, Cronic said. The program is funded entirely by private sponsors.

Gilbert said she learned from the example of the school resource officers who traded in their deputy uniforms for shorts, T-shirts and ball caps.

"They’re teaching you how you can have fun without doing other things like drugs," she said. "You can come to the park with friends instead of going to parties."

Cronic said while the camp is a reward for Advance students, his deputies find it rewarding, too.

"So often in law enforcement, you see the negative side of the community, but this gives you an opportunity to see that hope and promise and remember why you got into this in the first place," Cronic said. "So I think we enjoy this as much as the kids do"

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