Eleven-year-old Grace reaches out to catch a water balloon as the heat radiates from the gravel parking lot. In the background, the voice of 911 dispatcher Elora Randleas rises above the sounds of bird calls and the splash of canoe paddles in nearby Lake Afton.
Grace and 20 or so other girls are lined up facing one another. They toss water balloons to one another with varying degrees of accuracy while Randleas reads out a typical 911 description.
“Okay, girls. There’s a 30-year-old white male in a blue truck with a 7-year-old female wearing a white dress and a yellow hair ribbon.”
When Randleas asks the girls about the color of the truck in the description she gave, they shout out the names of colors as water balloons burst at their feet.
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“Pay attention!” One girl shrieks at a distracted neighbor.
The girls are discovering how difficult it is to catch important details and water balloons at the same time. That’s the point of the exercise, Randleas said later: to simulate the experience of a 911 dispatcher. The girls are part of a group of 130 Wichita youth, aged 11 to 15, who are spending the week camped out at the lake, getting a taste of what law enforcement officers do every day.
It’s the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s office’s L.A.W. Camp.
The letters stand for “Leaders, Achievers and Winners,” and the goal is for area kids to view law enforcement officers not just as authority figures, but as people, said sheriff’s Capt. Brenda Dietzman.
The camp draws a mix of children from different parts of the community, including neighborhoods where Dietzman said law enforcement is trying to have a more positive presence. Members of the Kansas National Guard were on hand to partner with Dietzman and her colleagues in leading the campers in lessons in taekwondo and flag etiquette.
Major David Burk of Rose Hill said he hopes campers will leave with thoughts like, “I never knew that soldiers were the same people who live next door to me and sit next to me in church.”
Soldiers and sheriff’s deputies may serve as counselors, but in some ways, L.A.W. camp looks and sounds like any other summer camp. There are spontaneous bouts of laughter, high-pitched whistles from plastic water bottle straws and a few complaints.
“I’m ready to go home,” said Cierra, 11, as she fanned herself with her hand. “My mom made me and my brother come.”
Elijah, who is 12 and attended L.A.W camp last summer, had a more positive assessment. He and the other members of his team – called White No. 1 – sat in the shade of a picnic shelter, awaiting their turn at the water balloon station.
“It’s fun here. We go swimming, fishing and learn about different jobs, plus stuff like painting and being nice to each other.”
He grinned at the boy to his left.
“White No. 1 is the most generous team,” Elijah said.
Then he went back to whistling through his plastic straw.