Amid the laughter and cheers, the running and jumping, and the excited energy scattering all across Floyd Gwin Park on the feet of dozens of playful kids, Cpl. Michael Hamilton was reminded, standing aside in the shade for a bit, that he was watching just the beginning of camp — and that this was just the start to one of two.
There’s twice as much work to be done this year.
And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Knowing that I have two sessions this year, I’m like double-happy,” Hamilton laughed during the second day of camp Tuesday, trying to find the right words. “It’s great.
“The more kids that we can reach, the better,” he added.
The Odessa Police Department’s Police Athletic League summer camp has been expanded to include two sessions this summer to welcome even more campers, in the camp’s 26th summer of bringing local youth together daily for activities, exercises and fun in the sun.
This year, after several summers of 60-child, one-month camps filling up fast and quickly closing registration, the program has doubled in scope, now supporting a full camp running throughout June and another with about 60 other campers running through July.
Both camps filled up and now about 120 local kids will have the chance to enjoy weekdays filled with tug-of-war, kickball, playground time and more at Floyd Gwin, plus afternoon field trips to pools and the bowling alley and others, while connecting with officers like Hamilton, who’s in his fifth summer with the program, and Sgt. Jon Foust, the camp’s executive director and coordinator.
“I’m really excited about this summer,” said Foust, who’s in his 17th year running the PAL camp and 20th year involved in it, speaking on the chance to have two sessions instead of just one.
“I’m really excited about the direction and the progress that we’re making with these kids, and that the administration backs us 100-percent on it,” he said.
Each session of the camp is set to run every weekday for four weeks, with the second session starting July 9. Each day, OPD officers spend parts of their shift with campers, and, Foust said, more and more officers are coming to the park to volunteer in their spare time, above and beyond when it’s assigned.
Foust said OPD Chief of Police Michael Gerke wanted to expand the program and invest more into it this past year.
“Chief Gerke approached us during the off-time, and said this is what he’d like to do and asked if we think we could make it work,” Foust said.
“We’re multiple levels of officers short and he’s still committing officers out here from each shift. That shows an unbelievable amount of support from our administration and belief in the program as far as I’m concerned.”
Foust said he was excited about the prospect of expanding the camp as soon as it came up.
“We’ve always had a waiting list. It was really nice not having to have a waiting list,” Foust said. “Those who missed the June registration gladly took the July. That made it feel better for me, that I didn’t have to tell somebody, ‘No.’”
With more time invested into the camp, that means more is ultimately invested into the area’s youth, Hamilton noted.
“I think it’s awesome,” Hamilton said. “Chief Gerke is all about community policing, and he sees that this is a big community function for us. He knows that if we can reach the kids and show them that we’re people, we can start building a better community, a better relationship between us and their community.”
Foust said that funds the program raises go toward either officer training via PAL conferences, or toward insuring the camps and keeping registration costs low for many of the campers that need it. Citizen donations are welcomed for the Odessa PAL, sharing the same address as the department at 205 North Grant Avenue.
“To me, this is exactly what police work is — working with these kids,” Foust said. “We all get into the job wanting to help people.
“To me, it’s the most rewarding part of police work that I’ve ever been involved with.”