Building Tomorrow's Leaders

Before last summer, Levi Johnson had never been to camp. He'd also never had a positive experience with a law enforcement officer.

Levi Johnson.

That all changed last June when he spent a week at Camp POSTCARD.

Led by Volunteers of America (VOA), Dakotas, Camp POSTCARD is designed to help build positive, trusting and respectful relationships between at-risk youth and law enforcement officials.

Thanks in part to a multi-year grant from the Community Foundation, students were able to attend camp at no cost and the majority of camping supplies, from sleeping bags to hygiene kits and more, were also provided, along with transportation to and from the camp, held at NeSoDak on Enemy Swim Lake. School resource and law enforcement officers, as well as VOA staff, served as camp counselors.

Campers spent the week participating in activities designed to help build social and communication skills. They also gained confidence, learned to make better decisions and prepared to become leaders and positive role models at their respective schools.

For Levi, a seventh grader at George McGovern Middle School, Camp POSTCARD was an experience he’ll never forget.

Beyond the fun he had kayaking, trying new foods and making new friends, he said the opportunity to interact with law enforcement officers was life-changing.

“I always thought police officers were kind of mean to people. But since I’ve been here, the police officers have been nothing but nice to me," he said.

(The officers) are always helping me out. They told me some serious stuff to help me be a better person. They told me I was a chosen to be here. They told me I was awesome. They told me I’m a leader. I’ve never seen myself like that before.

— Levi Johnson
Officer Trey Hunt and Deputy Neville Smith.

Officer Trey Hunt and Deputy Neville Smith both worked as counselors for Camp POSTCARD. Hunt is a member of the Sioux Falls Police Department and Smith is a member of the Minnehaha County Sheriff Department. They called the camp the right thing at the right time.

“I truly believe this is a very positive thing for these kids. This camp matters,” Hunt said. “We had 38 kids here. If we can be a positive impact in their lives, that will create a ripple effect. These kids will influence their friends, their families, their classmates.”

Smith agreed. “For some of these kids, they may hear ‘you’re no good,’ or ‘you’ll never amount to anything,’ but, after this experience, they’ll be able to recall the time someone told them they were chosen — the time someone told them they mattered,” he said.

Making an Impact

Sarah Hanson serves as managing director for children, youth and families at Volunteers of America, Dakotas. She was part of the team that developed plans for the camp and she also served as a camp counselor. She called the week-long experience a game changer.

“We had a wide range of kids who attended — some were selected by their school resource officer for their leadership and positive influence. Others were selected because they have an interest in law enforcement as a career. Other kids were chosen because they’d been having some trouble at school — so their interactions with school resource officers have been due to issues or challenges,” Hanson said. “But ultimately they’re picked because the officers see something in them — they see potential, they see kids who know how to make good decisions.”

Hanson said the support from the Community Foundation helped make the idea for Camp POSTCARD a reality.

“If we had to charge for this camp, 90 percent of the kids here today would not be here. The endorsement of, and the grant funding from the Sioux Falls Area Community Foundation, which has such a strong reputation, helped others get on board and pledge their financial support to make this a reality."

Michael Powers learned about the idea for Camp POSTCARD from the team at the Community Foundation. He was inspired by the idea and directed a grant from his charitable fund held at the Foundation in support of the effort.

"The Community Foundation always has good ideas for me to consider based on what I’m interested in. I think creating experiences for kids and law enforcement to interact in a positive way will lead to good outcomes," Powers said.

This camp would not have happened without the support of the Sioux Falls Area Community Foundation. This grant is impacting the lives of kids throughout our community.

— Sarah Hanson, Volunteers of America, Dakotas