SAFE Camp kids take downtown York by storm, spreading the love

Jose Efpinoza, 11, paints a message of love for York City on PeoplesBank's window in Continental Square during the first week of the York City School District Police Department's SAFE Camp in York City, Thursday, July 12, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert

York City School Police Chief Michael Muldrow organized groups of students in Continental Square on Thursday morning as they prepared to add a little color to the downtown landscape.

"I wanna go painting!" one student shouted, ready for the task at hand.

They carried trays of washable/removable blue, red, pink, green and white paint as they were instructed to "take your time, make it neat."

On the front window of PeoplesBank, five students filled in a mural that reads, "We love York," with the "love" being represented by a large heart. 

One girl drew her own peace sign in pink paint.

The group came to York City on Thursday, July 12, for Love Downtown Day, an effort to give back to the city and the businesses that have supported them and to spread love to the residents passing by. 

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And it's just one activity in the three-week SAFE Camp that kicked off Monday, July 7, administered by the district's police department to teach kids safety, accountability, fitness and etiquette.

It's the second year of the free camp, and already it has grown in size from about 40 participants last year to about 75 this year.

"We try to give the kids an experience the majority of them don't get to do," said Lt. Quinn Johnson.

In the morning, they focus on physical fitness, education and etiquette, he explained, and they are rewarded with fun activities such as going to Kilgore Falls — a waterfall in Maryland — taking a cruise around the Baltimore harbor or visiting the Washington, D.C., zoo.

"We want to show them that you've got to work hard in life, in school, at home, and also when no one's looking," Johnson said.

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Spreading the love: Love Downtown Day was inspired by a local man who used to walk around with a sign for "free hugs," said Officer Angie Morales.

The department decided to take on the idea of spreading love to others and extend it to area businesses and organizations.

Breaking into groups, kids from York City School District, along with a few from other districts, cleaned up around each location and went inside to meet the employees, express their appreciation and ask if they could beautify their storefronts.

Later in the day, they came back to the area with their own signs offering free hugs or positive sentiments and handed out snacks and water bottles to the community.

One officer led kids in a chant of "Safe Camp!" as they marched down the streets.

They drew in chalk on the sidewalks in the square, leaving sentiments such as, "York City is the best," "York City rocks!" and even "Adults can play too!" (likely left by one of the officers.)

Many area agencies and organizations provided them with donations of extra snacks and water throughout their day.

And the local businesses also showed their appreciation by passing out free goodies as the kids worked — they got swag including Hawaiian leis, bandannas, hats and sunglasses.

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Building character: Beyond community service and kindness, the camp focuses on skills that will help build character.

"Physical fitness is a big thing," Johnson said, noting that if kids get their minds and bodies in the right place, they'll feel good about themselves.

Etiquette helps teach the students to be respectful, he said. They learn simple tasks such as what to do at dinner — pushing their chairs in and where to put the napkin.

"If you have that, the majority of the time you can go (further) in life," he said.

Johnson and the other officers helped keep the kids in line while they worked, teaching them accountability for their actions. 

"Go get some paper towels, we gotta clean this up!" he said after some paint spilled on the sidewalk.

Morales said the group works as a team — if one messes up, they all take the fall.

"Everyone has to work together," she said.

The camp is for ages 8 to 12, but older kids can come back as youth counselors, learning to be leaders.

Jacoby Grayson, 13, who goes to Dallastown Area Middle School, enjoyed coming back in a new role. "It was really awesome," he said.

In addition to the outings, Johnson says they will have motivational speakers and a safety day.

Ashley Senter, 12, left, Zachary Swoyer, 9, center, and Richard Morel, 12, write messages of love and positivity for the city in sidewalk chalk in Continental Square during the first week of the York City School District Police Department's SAFE Camp in York City, Thursday, July 12, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert

They love it: A group of six painted the front window of the York County Community Foundation building.

Reneelynn Price, 13, used pink sparkle paint on the "A" of a SAFE Camp mural, and Jaylah Johnson, 11, filled in a blue "S."

They are both returning for the second year. 

When asked what activity she liked most from the camp, Price responded, "All of it."

"They love it," Johnson said.

Last year, the district was scrambling to get kids to sign up for the first edition of the camp, and this year they have a waiting list, he said.

"At first I didn't want to do it, but my grandma talked me into it," said Aniya Andrews, 10.

Now she loves coming to hang out with a big group and meet lots of people.

Gladyris Rodriguez, 9, was surprised by how much fun it turned out to be.

When asked if she learned a lot at camp, she said, "Actually, yeah! We learned to be kind and save the world."

Ashley Senter, 12, left, and Richard Morel, also 12, paint a message of love for York City on PeoplesBank's window in Continental Square during the first week of the York City School District Police Department's SAFE Camp in York City, Thursday, July 12, 2018. The three-week camp experience focuses on Safety, Accountability, Fitness and Etiquette and provides students with a variety of meaningful, fun experiences such as a cruise, overnight camping and visiting the Washington, D.C., zoo. Dawn J. Sagert

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Officer Morales attended York City schools and said she can relate to the children because "I was once sitting in their same seats."

"Our kids have a lot of potential," she added.