Learning the rules of safety

Published 11:24 pm Friday, November 19, 2010

Alexus Wilson, Darius Overton and Michael Smith wait with anticipation as the begin their 95-foot ascent on the ladder of a fire truck during their class at the Suffolk Youth Safety Academy on Thursday.

A teenager’s scream pierced the air.

Students folded their hands in prayer.

Knuckles turned white as they gripped a metal railing.

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But it was just another day at the fire station on White Marsh Road.

The 16 students in the fall session of the Youth Public Safety Academy had the opportunity to ride 95 feet into the air in a fire department ladder truck.

“It was really scary, but I knew I wanted to do it,” said Alexus Wilson, an eighth-grader at John F. Kennedy Middle School. “I got butterflies in my stomach, and my legs got stiff. I couldn’t move, but it was pretty cool. I could see where some of my friends stay and the Social Services building.”

The activity was one of many that students participate in throughout the 11-week academy, a joint project between Suffolk’s fire and police departments that introduces at-risk students to the public safety fields and creates positive relationships between the students and public safety officials.

“The most important message for these students is the choices they make today will affect them for a lifetime,” said Fire Investigator Pam King, a program leader. “Our hope for police and fire is that we can encourage the kids to give back to the community, keep them headed in the right direction and to know that we care.”

The students meet twice a week for 11 weeks to receive lessons from police and fire departments, attend team-building workshops and enjoy hot meals and hands-on activities. They will graduate on Jan. 25.

“We had 40 applicants this session,” King said. “We really had to pick and choose who to participate.”

Students also are learning the importance of community service. They have discussed problems they see in their community, including gangs and graffiti, littering, homelessness, lack of safe teen hangouts and hunger.

The group’s community service project this year will be assisting animal control by providing needed items and help, but their lives already are evincing the effect of the lessons.

One student saw a need to help teens in her school who don’t have lunch, and King is helping her devise a plan to do something about it.

“I have friends who stopped bringing lunch to school and never have lunch money,” said Sydney Ward, a student. “It’d be nice to have a fund for kids so they have a way to eat instead of watching us eat.”

King explained students who need lunch assistance have to sign up at the beginning of the year.

This is the third year and the fourth session of the academy. The academy is typically held in the spring to avoid competition with fall sports and disagreeable weather. In light of some youth-involved crimes in the past year, however, administrators decided to have an extra session this year.

“We want to continue to effectively find a positive alternative to negative behavior,” King said.

Students who applied to the camp this year said that even though they’re having to stay up to do homework and skip out on other extracurricular activities, it’s well worth it.

“Last year I was cussing and biting, and it was time for me to calm down,” Wilson said. “I needed something active to do. I wanted to try out for cheerleading, but I decided I didn’t want to get kicked out if I missed too many days. Being picked for something like this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I can always try out for cheerleading another time.”

“I applied because I wanted to do something other than just sit around,” Ward said. “I do my homework when I get home or later. I’ve stayed up to finish it, but my grades haven’t dropped. All the activities here are fun and you learn so much.”