Kelly Aston is a cop, and she wants to give kids more than just the facts about her job. She wants them to understand everything that makes it a challenge, a goal and a life’s ambition.
The State College Police Department’s community relations officer wants to encourage boys and girls from Centre County to find out more about what law enforcement has to offer, and maybe end up following the same path.
Camp Cadet is one way to get there.
“This is the 30th anniversary,” Aston said. “It started as a way to bridge the gap between law enforcement and youth.”
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Since those beginnings in 1984, the program has evolved, shaping itself to give kids what they need and help police guide the way.
“Today, it’s a good way to learn, not just about a career in law enforcement, but about things like the criminal justice system and emergency services,” said Aston.
More than 2,200 students aged 12-15 from any of the Centre County school districts can participate in the weeklong camp held in Huntingdon County. Some activities are basic camp stuff. Some is the kind of thing that can’t be found other places.
There are crime scenes, for example. The state police bring in a helicopter. There is even an FBI scenario re-enactment.
“It’s not ‘CSI’ or ‘Criminal Minds,’ ” said Katelyn Basalla. But for a kid like she was when she first came to camp, it appealed to everything she thought she would love about law enforcement.
The Port Matilda woman just graduated from Penn State with a degree in crime, law and justice and hopes to get a job in her field this summer. But she hopes that wherever she is working, she still has time for Camp Cadet. Every year since going as a camper, she has been a volunteer or a counselor, hoping to see others get as much out of the experience as she did.
“We have a lot of success stories,” said Aston, but Basalla is clearly a favorite. Aston smiled as she remembered being a counselor herself at camp when the young girl came through, struggling with the daily run. Aston encouraged her to keep going, running alongside, and after a few days, Basalla realized that she had the strength to do it on her own.
“I didn’t have a lot of self-esteem,” she said. “Camp Cadet changed my life. I have confidence in myself.”
Aston wants to see other girls learn the same inner lessons. The camp offers two sessions. One for boys, July 27-Aug. 2, and one for girls, Aug. 3-9. It isn’t that Aston thinks girls need the program more. Instead, she thinks it opens doors that girls don’t automatically think apply to them.
Boys, she said, often grow up imagining careers like firefighter, policeman, special agent or lawyer. Girls, however, sometimes need a chance to envision themselves in the uniform.
Officers like Aston, and Basalla, who served as a lieutenant in the Penn State auxiliary police, show both boys and girls what they can be.