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An Active Effort to Keep Kids Off Drugs : DARE Camp Shows That Action Really Is Louder Than Words


LONG BEACH — George Rodriguez knows what he wants to do when he grows up. He wants to be one of those daring individuals on a police SWAT team who rescue hostages from bank robbers and save the day in other crises.

"That way you get to take care of everybody so they won't get killed," George declared between mouthfuls of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

There are other compensations especially appealing to 10-year-old boys like George who have fertile imaginations. "You get lots of guns and knives and neat weapons," he said. "And you get to go around and scare people with mean dogs. But I've already got a mean dog, so that part isn't that important."

It was lunchtime on the third day of the Long Beach Police Department's weeklong DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) Summer Camp, and George and most of the other kids had decided law enforcement was pretty neat stuff.

Gathered at the Long Beach Police Academy, about 75 kids got a firsthand look at the tools of the trade. In addition to the SWAT demonstration, they saw the Jaws of Life rip the door off an old Cadillac. They stood in awe as a police helicopter landed on the academy grounds. And they got to pet dogs from the department's K-9 unit.

The flashy demonstrations may have opened the youngsters' imaginations to the possibilities of police and rescue work, but DARE officers were working to close their minds to something else: drugs. Throughout the week, the youngsters heard one main message: "Stay away from drugs."

Judging from the banter amid the games of tag and unsanctioned water-spitting contests, the anti-drug message seemed to be getting through.

"The best thing is that I learned about staying off drugs," said Andres Rincon, 10, brushing a potato chip off his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shirt.

"The best thing I learned is not to do drugs and that I don't want to be an alcoholic," added Daniel Lee, 9.

The DARE staff established the free camp in part to make up for the elimination of a similar program coordinated through the Parks and Recreation Department, said Cpl. Dale Malec.

During three previous summers, representatives of the Police and Fire departments had brought drug and safety demonstrations to day camps held in city parks. However, those camps were eliminated because of budget cuts, particularly in the Fire Department, and because several other participants bowed out.

When DARE originally sent out word of the camp, officers planned to limit enrollment to 50 youngsters ages 8 to 12. But they expanded the program to accept all 75 who applied.

The camp staff--six DARE officers and a Fire Department volunteer--decided that activities and demonstrations would have more impact than lectures against drugs.

"We've tried to stay away from straight drug lectures," said Cpl. Georgia Smith, whose peanut butter sandwiches drew raves from several campers. "We're trying to emphasize that we're presenting people who've made good choices, and to show them how much fun they can have if they make good choices."

Down at the training course, "Officer Julie," otherwise known as Cpl. Julia Walling, was leading the troops in a demonstration of the Police Academy's fitness test, which included jumping over a six-foot padded wall. She asked for quiet.

"I have to concentrate!" she announced, placing her fingers at her temples. "It's been 12 years since I've done this. I am older!"

As it turned out, Officer Julie had no problem making it over the wall. Next, "Officer Dale" Malec took to the wall with a pack on his back, simulating an overweight policeman who had "spent all his coffee breaks at Winchell's doughnuts." He struggled, but he made it.

And so did the kids who volunteered--although Daniel Jones would have made a perfect one-point landing on his head if not for a little help from the staff.

Then there was the karate demonstration by Richard Robinson, a volunteer who teaches the sport to 100 youngsters through the Police Athletic League. As six students twirled, kicked and went after each other with simulated weapons, the crowd cheered them on.

"Can we see those two girls with the blue belts fight?" called out one youngster. "Is that knife real?"

Afterward, the blue mats used for the demonstration were writhing with dozens of newly aspiring black belts. They included Brandon Harris, whose leg was enclosed in a cast up to his knee. "A bus hit me," Brandon explained, then added that if truth be told, he actually had hit the bus.

Scuffles appeared to be a rare occurrence during this week of new adventures and new friendships. "Most of the kids are nice," said Sarah Fineman, 11, with a definite note of qualification. "I asked one girl to watch my ice and she put her fingers in it. Then she put it on her head."

"She was trying to be funny," said Janice Ponce, Sarah's new best friend.

The girls were asked whether anyone had ever tried to sell them drugs. Sarah thought a moment before answering.

"We shouldn't take the bad drugs that gangs sell," she said. "There's a lot of gangs by my house. We might move to Arizona."

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