Survivors learn to cope with loss
Concerns Of Police Survivors Camp offers
(Published Friday, October. 20, 2006, 2?35 p.m.)
Editor's note: This story was originally published August 14, 2005. Judges awarded it first place for a feature story in the National Newspaper Association's Better Newspaper contest
By Mike Heine/The Week
Nine-year-old Nico Amie of Atlanta wasn't shy when he told reporters what he loves about attending the Concerns Of Police Survivors (C.O.P.S.) Camp at Army Lake two weeks ago. He rattled off a long list of fun and activities for kids around his age, from canoeing, to fishing, to archery, to sports games.
But he was hesitant to talk about why he was there.
Nico was one of almost 100 kids at the camp who lives without a parent. His police officer mother was killed in the line of duty.
Just about all of the 158 campers-kids and widowed spouses-had a similar story about their mom or dad or husband or wife. That's why they gathered for the weeklong outing, to take advantage of what the C.O.P.S. program has to offer.C.O.P.S., a nationwide resource group, helps families that are affected by line-of-duty deaths to cope with the loss and rebuild their shattered lives.
"This is a whole new aspect of law enforcement," said C.O.P.S. creator and Executive Director Suzie Sawyer. "People used to only focus on the surviving widow, but we, our organization, is also focusing on the surviving kids, as well."
C.O.P.S. has 14,000 members nationwide and, tragically, the number keeps on growing. Annually, about 150 police officers are killed in the line of duty in the United States, according to the organization's Web site.
It's a group nobody really wants to be a part of, if at all avoidable, but it's a welcome resource for those who need it.
Kathy Cole lost her husband, a deputy sheriff in Ingham County, Mich., eight years ago. His son, Andrew, was 6 weeks old at the time of the accident.
"It's hard because people don't understand what you're going through," Kathy Cole said. "People don't understand why you can't get over it. It's funny. You tell people you're going to camp with other people who lost family members in the line of duty and they say, 'Why would you want to do that?' But this is such a safe place. It's a place you can come and share your story and experience, and no one judges you."
Katy Sherwood's police officer husband was killed in 2003, leaving behind three daughters, now ages 11, 5 and 2.
"(Camp) makes things easier," said Sherwood, of Clare, Mich. "Most of the people here are in a similar situation as you. There are not many people my age who are widowed."
Parents and kids can talk to one another about their loss and their experiences living without a mom or dad or husband or wife. Together, they go through photo albums and share memories they have of their loved ones.
Counseling activities are almost as popular as the fun and games, as they help bring comfort in the tragic loss of a loved one.
Others, who haven't lost a loved one in the line of duty are drawn to the camp.
Walworth County Sheriff's Deputy Tom Jones became immediately attached when he visited the camp for the first time Aug. 1.
"I think back to one little girl looking through her scrapbook ... In every other picture, there is Dad in a picture hanging on the wall behind them," Jones said emotionally.
When he arrived that Monday, one of the campers saw his uniform and asked if he knew his dad. Jones thought the dad might have lived in the area, but learned the young boy's father had been killed in the line of duty. His heart melted.
Jones, a father himself, said he knew he had to be at the camp the rest of the week to help the kids out in any way he could. He took vacation days from his job as a judicial center officer and offered to do anything coordinators needed him to do.
"The kids here just want to see a cop in uniform," Jones said. "That's what they're used to seeing. That was their dad coming home. They just want somebody, a real person in a uniform, standing around doing stuff with them because that would be normal."
That's what brought Department of Natural Resources Warden Tim Price back to the camp for a second year.
"This is the best thing I have ever done while working for the DNR," said Price, who helps coordinate events such as fishing expeditions, archery and rifle lessons, canoeing, nature walks and more. "We're all affected by it differently, but for me, it's interacting with the kids.
"These kids, so many of them are missing their dads, so for me, it's almost like I get to be a fatherly figure for them. I can go and pick up a fishing pole and take them fishing."
Price, who isn't a father, said he's developed a bond with several campers and even gets some post cards from them around Christmas time. A few campers referred to him as "my buddy Tim," or "Uncle Tim," when he was being interviewed down by the dock.
"When I go back home at the end of the day, I feel like I should still be here," Price said.
The camp is special to so many because of what it offers-help to those in need and the reassurance that tomorrow's challenges can be accomplished with confidence.
"I think what it does is it makes you understand that the things you are going through are normal," Cole said. "Other people are going through the same feelings and emotions. I can go home and know that whatever comes the next day, I can face."
Organizers are glad they can help.
"We all know that the (deceased) parents were heroes, but so are the surviving parents," Sawyer said. "Every day, they're living with the trauma that's been inflicted upon them. Their day-to-day life is an absolute challenge for them every single day."
"This organization recognizes that and says, 'Reach out and grab my hand. Just reach for my hand and we'll pull you up,'" said Harold Weinke, a Sauk County deputy and vice president of the Wisconsin C.O.P.S. chapter.
The organization has others reaching in as even more local law enforcement officials are willing to lend that helping hand.
"People often hear about cops dying, but they have no idea of the emotional toll it takes on the families," said Sgt. Tom Hausner of the Walworth County Sheriff's Department, who said he wants to become very involved in the program when it returns next summer for a third year at Army Lake. "It's far more reaching than the immediate family. It's everyone in law enforcement.
"I didn't know these people (at camp) from Adam, but the attachment I have to them now is closer than anything I've felt in my career."
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