Area kids get special treatment from big-hearted cops and firefighters

 

BY MICHELE MURPHY

“This is the best thing ever!” declared 10-year old Dylan.

He is referring to a week-long overnight camp sponsored by Operation Open Heart for nearly 50 boys ages 6 to 14 who, through no fault of their own, have open cases with Lorain County Children’s Services.

Now in its 55th year, Operation Open Heart was founded by Ohio State Highway Patrolman David Harper, who was an orphan.

More than two dozen police officers and firefighter/paramedics from departments, primarily in Lorain County, but also Cuyahoga, Huron and Erie Counties, give up their own vacation time to spend time with these youngsters.

Campers ride in airplanes at the county airport, and on boats at a local marina. They jump or dive from a trampoline into a foam pool. They bowl, swim and even can get a haircut. They have picnics and see fireworks. They ride in police and fire vehicles with their lights flashing and sirens blaring. They make new friends with other kids and form bonds with caring adults, who just happen to wear a badge.

Camp began last Monday and ended Friday. One of their first stops was lunch at Sheffield Lake’s AMVETS Post 55, where members were busy grilling burgers and hot dogs well ahead of their arrival. Others were setting up a table that ran the length of a room with potato and macaroni salads, baked beans, sliced watermelon, and more, to ensure the kids and their adult mentors had full stomachs before they moved on to their next officially scheduled activity.

There was no mistaking the arrival of the campers. It was easy to spot the lead car with its lights flashing as it crested the top of a hill on Abbe Road where the AMVETS hall is located. Right behind in single file was another car, then another. As they neared, the wail of their sirens grew louder. There were nearly 20 cars in the procession and, as they pulled into the parking lot, cops who were driving, smiled and waved while little – and not so little – heads in the back seats and passenger sides of the vehicles popped up into the windows to see what was going on.

Kids poured out of cars, some laughing and running. Others were a bit more tentative. Some immediately raced to an open area where cornhole boards were set up. Others went to picnic tables where they waited to be called for lunch. Still others sat or stood with police officers, many of whom wore their uniforms, or firefighter/paramedics, chatting or asking questions about their jobs or activities for the week.

State highway patrol officers, sheriff’s deputies, police officers from Grafton, Amherst, Wellington, Lorain, New London and Olmsted Falls and firefighter/paramedics s from North Ridgeville and Vermillion, among others, moved around the throng of kids.

A number of officers brought their sons along. Several older boys said they had attended for years and were now ready to help out.

Operation Open Heart also has civilian members. One of their newest members is Avon Lake resident Justin Donovan. Donovan got to know the organization as a camper. He has attended every year since 2011 and was proud to be nominated as a member this year. He is not the first camper to join the organization as an adult, a credit to the effectiveness of the organization’s goal to help kids form relationships with safety forces personnel.

Bob Brown, a sergeant with Lorain Police Department, currently serves as President of Operation Open Heart. He explained the group holds two big fund-raisers each year to raise money to cover expenses for each camper. In addition, a number of businesses make significant in kind donations to support the camp and campers.

Dylan had already made a new friend in Johnathon, who emphasized that his name was spelled with an “h.” The two were looking forward to visiting Sky Zone after lunch, but seemed even more excited about getting haircuts. Dylan complained that his hair too long. Johnathon ran his fingers through his own hair and agreed that his hair was also too long.

As kids sat on long picnic benches, Jamantha, who had been to camp the previous year, said he also looked forward to Sky Zone. Later in the week, he added several activities to the list. Like so many of the kids, camp just kept getting better and better given all the activities scheduled for them.

North Ridgeville police officer Damir Kuduzovic, who has spent four summers with Open Heart and Avon Lake’s Donovan, watched the bubbly group. “What would these kids be doing if they didn’t have this camp?” they were asked.

None of the responses were positive – playing video games, watching TV, being alone. Gazing over the group, and knowing what was in store for them, they just smiled.

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