Sheriffs in counties across the state are hoping to maintain community support for the annual children’s summer camp their association probably won’t be able to host during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The hope is that it can somehow go forward this year, as it has since 1977. But the reality is that the state has banned sleep-away camps from operating this year, out of concerns that campers and staff might transmit the virus. It’s already July, and it would take a near-miracle to change course now.
Last week, Montgomery County Sheriff Jeffery Smith and Saratoga County Sheriff Michael Zurlo both asked the public to support the annual honorary membership drive for the New York State Sheriffs’ Institute.
The purpose was twofold, Smith said: To solicit monetary support for the camp for fixed expenses such as maintenance and repairs, and to remind the public that the camp still exists, even if no local children head out to the campground on Keuka Lake this year.
“At this point,” Smith said, “It looks like it’s not going to [happen] this year.”
Camp Iroquois was started 44 years ago. It is free for campers, and brings together 840 economically disadvantaged children from across the state to have fun, build self-esteem and interact with law enforcement personnel.
“The kids love it,” Smith said. “When they come here in the parking lot they’re all shy and a little nervous.”
They board the bus quietly and take a seat for the long ride.
“When they come back, it’s the total opposite.”
Part of the camp’s mission is to build understanding and respect for what police do.
With the recent wave of protests against police misconduct and brutality, the message seems particularly timely but Smith doesn’t feel that it is any harder to sell.
“I don’t think it’s a difficult message,” he said, explaining that most children start off with respect for police and policing. As they get older, those who have a bad interaction with police or have difficult life experiences might lose that respect.
“Each individual learns based on experiences in life,” Smith said.
He and his deputies strive to be part of the community rather than just enforcing the rules under which the community operates.
The globally broadcast videos of police injuring and killing Black suspects during arrest runs counter to this, Smith said, and watching them made him sick to his stomach.
“These cops that are doing these things that are wrong bring all of us down,” he said.
“Locally here we have a much better relationship with the people in our community regardless of the color of their skin.”
As a child, Smith never had a summer camp experience like the Sheriff’s Institute offers, or a Police Explorer club at school. There was no single incident or program or uncle that nudged him toward his career as he grew up, yet when he graduated from high school, “police officer” was entered in his yearbook under likely career.
“I don’t really know why, but it’s just something that I wanted to do,” he recalls.
Smith joined the Sheriff’s Department at age 19 and rose to undersheriff. He joined the Fort Plain Volunteer Fire Department at a young age and rose to chief, and also served as the county emergency management director before being elected sheriff.
So Smith’s career has spread beyond the high school yearbook prediction into the wider realm of public safety/public assistance.
Being able to fulfill that mission of helping other people is a great feeling, he said. It’s also one of the goals of Camp Iroquois.
Smith would like to help share that with the campers when the camp resumes, but he’s still never been there in person.
“I wish it was a little closer to us,” he said.