Teaching tactics, relationships: Amherst, UMass police hold annual Youth Adventure Academy

By Mercy Lingle

For the Gazette

Published: 07-23-2023 9:06 AM

AMHERST — Ginnahlys Garcia-Roman is feeling stronger and more self-confident this week, just a few days after wrapping up a weeklong academy that gave her and other middle school students an intensive look at all facets of policing and team-building activities.

Garcia-Roman is one of 20 youths who participated in the Summer Youth Adventure Academy — a program offered by the Amherst and UMass police departments each summer. Though she may be a little shorter than her older brother, Jonathan Aviles-Roman, who also attended the academy, Ginnahlys said one of her highlights for the week involved “learning how to defend myself.” Jonathan agreed, and both were very engaged when they were learning from Amherst Police Sgt. Ricky Arocho about how to block an attack.

In addition to self-defense, Garcia-Roman and Aviles-Roman spoke about the different policing duties that they learned at the academy.

For Ginnahlys, the most exciting part of the week was “when we got to arrest each other.”

She described the experience she had while sitting in the front seat of a cop car, giving orders to the subject of the arrest, her older brother, and even handcuffed him and had him sit in the back of the car. She said she felt “pretty powerful” when this happened.

Jonathan enjoyed “all of the adventures,” but was specifically thrilled “when we saw the canines find the drugs.” Even though his sister said she was a little frightened of the “one [dog] that bites the person,” both found the process of watching the dogs use their senses of smell to find contraband very entertaining.

In addition to helping establish a positive relationship between youth and police, the academy aims to enhance responsible citizenship, provide positive interaction with police officers, educate young people about the challenges and responsibilities of police work and encourage team-building activities on an adventure ropes course located at the summit of the Norwottuck range.

The program, which has taken place every summer for the past 20 years or so, is a weeklong day camp open to children entering grades six, seven, and eight, and it operates at no cost to the campers. Many of the children who attend report that they have been inspired to become members of the police force, and UMass police officer Brian Kellogg even confessed that he recalls teaching a 12-year-old who went on to become one of his fellow officers.

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The camp involves a combination of classroom work and hands-on activities. The campers last week started each day meeting at the UMass Police Department for a team-building activity. One morning, as Kellogg describes it, the children divided into teams and attempted to construct a tower using only marshmallows and spaghetti noodles. After 30 minutes at the department headquarters, the students piled into the police and fire department’s vans and head to the Church of the Latter Day Saints on Brigham Road in Amherst, where they learned self-defense techniques.

Later in the day, after eating at the UMass dining halls, the campers head to the Amherst Adventure-Based Ropes Course maintained by the Amherst and UMass police departments by the Norwottuck Range. Kellogg said that the popular course is what initially inspired him and two other officers to start the camp in the early 2000s.

The youth don’t start using the ropes course until halfway through the week to allow for some adjustment time, but by the last day of camp, they are able to use the low and high ropes courses as well as a zip-line. Additionally, on the final day of the academy, the officers hold a “graduation” to celebrate the student’s accomplishments.

In terms of what the kids learn pertaining to officer duties, they cover everything from arrest demonstrations to blocking techniques in hand-to-hand combat.

“They’re middle school kids so we keep it fun,” Kellogg said, referring to the techniques that the campers learn.