By Michael A. Sawyer, Concerns of Police Survivors, Inc., Chicago, Illinois
oncerns of Police Survivors, Inc. (C.O.P.S.), is a nonprofit organization established to provide resources to assist in the rebuilding of the lives of surviving families of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty, as determined by U.S. federal criteria. C.O.P.S. was organized in 1984 with 110 members but today includes over 15,000 families.
Unfortunately, with between 140 and 160 law enforcement officers dying in the line of duty each year, C.O.P.S.’s membership continues to grow; as a result, the organization’s programs for surviving spouses, children, parents, siblings, significant others, and affected coworkers are in greater demand than ever. C.O.P.S. programs for survivors include the National Police Survivors’ Conference, held each May during National Police Week; scholarships; peer support at the national, state, and local levels; and a counseling reimbursement program. (For more information, visit www.nationalcops.org.)
This article relates the stories of two participants of the C.O.P.S. Kids Summer Camp, one of the several programs the organization has established for children of fallen officers. Each story holds a similar message: children are not the only ones who benefit from participation.
I Thought I Did It for My Son!
Everyone knows the saying, “It’s not the heat—it’s the humidity.” Yvette Wallace, surviving spouse of Drug Enforcement Administration agent Frank S. Wallace Jr., whose end of watch (EOW) took place on August 27, 1994, begs to differ.
Yvette took her son, Matt, to C.O.P.S. Kids Summer Camp for the first time when he was six years old. She was not sure what to expect at the camp or how Matt would fare at the camp, since he was only a year old when his father was killed in the line of duty. The most memorable thing she experienced was heat—lots of heat. The first camp the Wallaces attended was in the middle of a heat wave in central Missouri. “It was so hot and so humid that I couldn’t enjoy any of the events. I just did not like it.” Of course, Yvette had no desire to return the following year.
But her son had other plans. Unlike his mother’s experience, Matt loved the camp. “He begged me to go back.” Even though she was not looking forward to it, she agreed to do it for him. So, preparing for the worst, Yvette packed every fan she could fit into her luggage, and she and Matt headed back to C.O.P.S. Kids Camp. In true ironic fashion, the Wallaces arrived just in time to enjoy an unexpected cold front! Luckily, along with all the fans, she had managed to fit a light sweater in her suitcase, because she really needed it that year.
There was something different about Yvette’s experience that year—she actually enjoyed it. One of her favorite moments that summer was when her son came running to her holding a huge fish. He had not caught any fish before, but this bass was the record-breaker that summer. “The light on his face,” Yvette explained of her son, “Smiling from ear to ear. Something as small as that could brighten him up.” Almost immediately, Yvette noticed a boost in her son’s confidence. At that time she realized that C.O.P.S. Kids Camp was not just about swimming, campfires, and fishing. It was about healing. After that cool summer and the fishing experience, Yvette knew they would be returning to camp the next summer.
Seven more summers passed, and seven more camp experiences followed. Yvette noticed not only a change in her son but a change in herself as well. “You wake up one day and you realize the change.” She explained that after the loss of her husband, it was hard to look past her grief. Through the stories of other spouses she met at camp, she began to take “little steps” toward her own healing. Though the counseling was helpful during her stays at camp, she said that one of the things that helped her most was “the actual hand to hold when you needed it.” When she looked back and saw how far she had come in her healing process, she said, “I believe I wouldn’t be where I am now if it weren’t for camp. It’s all about reaching in and reaching out and, hopefully, paying it forward.”
Matt is now 14, and this past summer was his last at C.O.P.S. Kids Camp. It was also the last year for Yvette to attend as well. She admitted that she was sad when the end came, but she was also excited because she believes she has “made it.” Next year, Matt will attend the C.O.P.S. Outward Bound program for surviving children ages 15 to 20. Yvette will continue to attend C.O.P.S. Spouse Retreats every fall. Yvette and Matt will continue reaching in for the emotional assistance they find from others at C.O.P.S. events, reaching out to help those whose losses are more recent than theirs, and, hopefully, paying it forward. Though their time at C.O.P.S. Kids Summer Camp has come to an end, they both look back and realize that all the “little steps” they have taken through their long journey of grief began with Yvette going to camp for her son.
Camp Changes Grown Men, Too!
For one week, July 30–August 5, 2007, 237 people gathered at the Salvation Army Camp in East Troy, Wisconsin, for the 14th annual C.O.P.S. Kids Summer Camp for surviving children ages 6–14 and their surviving parent or guardian. Every survivor benefits from the tremendous healing and personal growth that takes place at camp. But camp also changes the grown men who serve as mentors for the children who attend. U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) special agent Tom Ostrosky is one of those men.
Last March, Special Agent Ostrosky began his 21st year of service. After volunteering his time working with the children of slain officers for the last few years during National Police Week, Ostrosky was invited to attend camp to mentor children. It was an invitation he could not refuse. So, off he went to summer camp to play with and mentor children. It was an experience that changed his life. At camp, he came to love the title “Mr. Tom,” a term of endearment the eight six-year-old boys gave to their six-foot, two-inch friend.
In 2007, 157 children, all under the age of 14, from 83 families attended C.O.P.S. Kids Summer Camp. Tom was overwhelmed by the number of children that had lost a parent. But the youngest of the group, the six-year-olds, broke Ostrosky’s heart. It did not take him long to realize the impact that the camp had on the children. Not only did he witness the pain that these young survivors had experienced, but he also became part of their healing process. “These kids all share something in common, and it’s that common thread that helps them share their feelings and not be afraid to show emotion.” Ostrosky went on to explain about their counseling sessions, “Unless you share the same loss, you can never truly relate.” Watching the children share their stories and cry with each other is something that can bring a tear to the eye of even the toughest person. “You can’t describe the experience unless you are a part of it. Being with the kids all day and all night long and taking part in their counseling sessions was a life-altering experience for me,” said Ostrosky.
During one of the counseling sessions held at the grief camp, a young boy named Wyatt, the son of a fallen officer, was asked to draw a picture by the group leader conducting the session. This piece of paper, colored with crayons by a young child, showed a very grown-up scene. In the picture, a police officer was shooting his gun at another man. When Wyatt was asked about his drawing, he replied, “It’s Mr. Tom shooting the bad guys, so they can’t hurt someone else’s dad.”
When asked about his overall opinion of C.O.P.S. Kids Summer Camp, Ostrosky could not sufficiently express his approval. “I was so impressed with the program and the dedication of all the people involved with the camp. The volunteers and the mentors—all those people go all out to make this a memorable, healing event for these surviving families. It was a privilege and an honor to be a part of it.” Ostrosky plans on attending camp again this summer. He would love to have the same group of boys that he mentored last year so he could see how they have grown both physically and emotionally. “You can’t help but become emotionally attached to these kids. I call them ‘my boys.’”
Special Agent Ostrosky may have volunteered his time to help these children, but he, along with the other mentors at camp, would say that the children gave him much more than he gave them. Being there for these children, whether to give them a shoulder to cry on or to help paddle their canoe, numbers among the highlights of his life. As for the picture young Wyatt drew of Mr. Tom, it is hanging in the office of this extra-special agent as a reminder of his first summer at C.O.P.S. Kids Summer Camp, while Mr. Tom counts the days until he is with his boys once again. ■