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Minnesota National Guard
Camp teaches youth lessons in leadership

Minnesota National Guard As St Cloud Police Chief Blair Anderson surveyed the group of teenage boys waiting at attention in front of him, his words seemed to almost get stuck in the thick late-July air

"If you get lost, heaven help you," Anderson said, with just enough gravitas to hold the group's attention

Anderson's words, which came during Day 4 of the almost weeklong St Cloud Youth Leadership Academy at Camp Ripley in Little Falls, were preparation for an expedition the group would soon be going on

And they could have echoed what many members had heard most of their lives

But Anderson doesn't believe in letting young men wander off the path As a matter of fact, the reason the group members stood in front of him that day was an attempt to reach out before they were truly lost

"We do this so that we can intervene early before they go off the rails," Anderson said "We're mentoring We have a tremendous platform from which to work with as public safety officials and because of that, we can get people's attention We can either use that kind of power for evil or for good and I choose my platform for good"

A different camp

This is the second year a group from St Cloud has attended the program, which takes local teens between the ages of 13 and 16 and attempts to teach them how to be better leaders From July 27 through Aug 1, the group had almost every moment scheduled in hopes of bringing order to an often-chaotic time for young people

The goal was to teach respect, responsibility and trust to the group of 22 — 20 of whom who hailed from St Cloud or the surrounding areas

"I thought it was going to be easy and we were going to joke around and it was going to be a little fun camp, but they helped straighten that out right away," said Maseo Johnson, 16, of St Cloud "Right when we got there, we were laughing and cracking jokes and they made us do pushups, standing holding positions, flutter kicks and a lot of workouts"

Anderson, who's been part of the program for almost 10 years, said the academy was set up to reinforce positive actions and break down bad habits

"We don't have a lot of time, so our methodology is important, because we have to establish trust in order to get kids to buy in," he said "When you've only got a handful of days, you've got to work quickly, hence the structure"

He added: "It's amazing and it's good for us when you see that transition When you see a kid who has only used the words 'I can't, it's too hard,' when you see a kid like that transform in a very short period of time into a very confident person because they have had some success — who wouldn't feel good about that?"

Trying for change

That transformation couldn't happen without balancing out the tough love

An important aspect of the program is to show the group members there are plenty of people watching out for them

Throughout the week, the group interacted with members of the St Cloud Police Department, some of whom they see walking through the halls of their schools; and community members like Buddy King who works with the Roosevelt Boys & Girls Club in St Cloud and was part of the group that represented St Cloud's African American Male Forum organization

"The thing about kids is they want someone to lead them in the right direction," King said "They appreciate when they are being pulled in the right direction We know that, so we gather them and pull them in the right direction"

This was King's second time being involved with the program, and he believes the possibilities for what it could mean for the community are endless

"We are a community-village trying to help one kid at a time This particular camp is 20 kids at a time So 40 kids over two years, over 10 years that's 200 kids and you figure in 20 years those 200 kids will be taxpayers and hold down the jobs in this city and have kids of their own," King said "(Then they) can honestly say there's people out there that looked out for me and I feel comfortable that they're going to look out for you"

But the immediate effects of the program aren't lost on the campers "Sirs" and "ma'ams" quickly become commonplace Eye contact and firm handshakes are no longer a struggle, and there's a newfound sense of confidence exuding from many of the campers

"I feel great I feel like I finally accomplished something that I'm proud of," Johnson said
Johnson's mother, Erica, was just as proud of her son, if not more

"My son has the ability to do great things and to sometimes watch him fall back from that (is hard)," she said "It felt good to give him that perspective so he can move forward and say that you know what, this is not such a bad thing"

True test

King said that all the lessons learned over the week lead up to the true test — going back to a familiar environment

He believes that it's paramount to get parental support if any of the changes made at the camp are to stick

"We want to try and get both realms because it's not just the kids that we want to follow up with, though they are very important It's also the parents," King said "We want to give them parental support and try to give them the resources that they might need the kids are our focus, but we understand that it's bigger than the kids and it takes a community effort to get them where they want to be"

At graduation Friday, many of the parents shared that sentiment

"This was to help reinforce the things that we teach him at home We wanted to make sure we keep our kids grounded and that they're able to grow," said Chariesse Hunt, whose 13-year-old son Clifton Patterson participated in the camp "When they get into the real world as adults, he'll be really ready for that and this program will help reinforce that"

Darryl Anderson, the chief's nephew, is the first two-time graduate of the program, his uncle told the crowd of about 100 at Friday's graduation ceremony Darryl Anderson said that being part of the St Cloud Youth Leadership Academy will have a lasting influence on him

"Last year I really took away from it the aspect of brotherhood and becoming one and understanding each other," he said "It's a really heartfelt feeling Me, personally, I have people out there that care about me, but there's a lot of kids out there that don't have that"

Darryl Anderson said a key to fostering a positive change in the participants will be maintaining the relationships between the teens and the staff, many of whom are school resource officers locally

"They put their all into this," Blair Anderson said "They see the importance because they want a better community like everybody else does"

No matter what the future holds, the latest graduates of St Cloud Youth Leadership Academy know they won't be facing it alone From here on out, they have a brotherhood to fall back on

"I feel like I have their protection," Patterson said

Follow Ben Katzner on Twitter @BigKat0
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