The Boys & Girls Club of Bluffton again has partnered with the Bluffton Police Department to offer the Explorers’ LEAD (Leadership, Excellence, Achievement, Determination) program.
The Explorer’s club provides an in-depth look at law enforcement and military careers, and many former cadets have been successful in those fields.
“I know I can name at least 12 young people who went through the Navy, or are in the police force today, National Guard, Army, Marines,” said B&G Club Director Molly Hornbeak. “This program is a national award-winning program, and it has definitely made an impact on these young people’s lives. It has saved their lives.”
For the past six years, the Berkeley Hall Charitable Foundation has supported the Explorers’ LEAD program. The Boys & Girls Club also received funding this year for Explorers’ LEAD from the Hargray Caring Coins Foundation.
Registration begins Feb. 16 and is open until Feb. 23 for young people ages 12-18. Spring classes run through May 4 and take place at 5 p.m. in BPD headquarters at 101 Progressive St., off Buckwalter Parkway.
“We are excited to announce that the program will be held at the Bluffton Police Department. We felt it would be more of an impact if it was there,” said Pamela Castle, teen director for the club. “Even though we were in a pandemic, the BPD still found a way to work with our youth virtually. And we are super excited to get back to some sense of normality.”
The program focuses on developing leadership skills and learning the tools, tactics and techniques of law enforcement. Among the topics covered in the classes are K-9 procedures; basic patrol procedures and techniques; crime prevention and community policing; fingerprinting and investigation procedures; special response team; learning about the training image simulator that helps officers practice responses to different scenarios; and vehicle collisions and searches.
Not every cadet will go into law enforcement or the military, but participants feel they have gained just by attending.
May River High School sophomore Joseph Russo, 15, was interested and then encouraged by his mother to sign up.
“I started it four years ago. … I loved it immediately,” Russo said. “I just found it new and interesting, so I kept going from there. My favorite part is – it’s all my favorite part, really. PT was the hard part, but I am better at it now.”
His family has a history of military service, but his goal is to take over his father’s cleaning and restoration company, as well as continue creating and selling his own paintings.
“I do plan to go to college and major in business. But I would like to go to SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) as well,” he said.
Russo said the Explorers program has helped him learn leadership skills, which is welcome when he wants his voice to be heard. His advice for other students? “I would say try it for a year and if you like it, keep on going.”
A summer Explorers boot camp is scheduled to begin June 20, with graduation July 1. The camp is open to both current cadets as well as those who did not participate in a spring session.
Eniyah Scott, a junior who attends William Raines Senior High School in Jacksonville, Fla., last summer visited her father who works here. She wanted to try out the Boys & Girls Club, discovered the program and attended the boot camp. That program consists of daily physical training, drill and ceremony practice, as well as class time led by service-oriented volunteers from the Bluffton Police Department and the military.
“I saw they had an Explorers program, and I wanted to try it out. And it was really fun,” Scott said. “It was a new experience for me: the whole working out, learning what it was like to become a police officer, and the discipline part. It taught me that your action affects everyone.”
Unlike Russo, Scott enjoyed the morning workout.
“I liked that a lot, although the hard part was getting up in the morning,” she said. She’s thinking about possibly joining her brother as he joins the Air Force, or perhaps becoming a veterinarian.
Cadets who complete the boot camp are invited to participate in special field trips such as a Boating Safety Course and Day on the Water facilitated by American Boating Club of Hilton Head, a Day of Aviation Careers presented by the Civil Air Patrol, and a kayak outing presented by Outside Hilton Head. Cadets also are eligible to earn volunteer hours toward an enhanced high school diploma.
Castle said program leadership works closely with the School Resource Officers to find promising candidates.
“They have a good eye being in the schools, and they can see those characteristics and leadership skills. The program really pushes career exploration, and character and leadership,” she said. “We look for those who embody those skills, and also to help others whose skills in those areas need strengthening.”
Officer David Ur is a retired New Jersey police officer and former Marine who is new to the Bluffton Police Department. He participated in last year’s program while his son took part in the summer boot camp. He will be the lead in this year’s Explorer’s course, and will be the SRO at May River High School. He said the course is challenging but the graduates he saw had benefitted from the experience.
“I think at the end it’s just a really good sense of accomplishment. It’s like when I graduated from the police academy or Marine Corps. It’s challenging,” he said. “Everybody at times has to find within themselves the drive to complete the tasks at hand. We always make it fun so they get something out of it.”
Ur said the goal with the alliance between the police department and the Boys & Girls Club was giving the young people almost a pre-career training look at the military or law enforcement.
“This is what you have to go through whether you go to the military or the police academy. There’s still the same thing – uniform, marching, drilling. It really gives the kids a unique vision to see if that is a good career for them,” said Ur. “We get something out of it, too. It’s almost like a youth public safety ambassador that we can develop in the school system. It’s a win-win for the Bluffton Police Department, the Boys & Girls Club, and the community.”
Castle, who has been at the club for five years, has seen a marked change in several club members who joined the Explorers.
“I’ve seen people who didn’t want to be here or do anything turn around and become some of our top leaders,” she said. “I’ve really seen that transition in the summer programs, with boot camp being outside, the drilling, the early mornings, the heat. You also see them come together. It’s really a family.”
Those interested in joining the program should contact Castle at 843-757-2845, email@example.com or visit bgcbluffton.org/explorerslead.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.