VISTA — Some days it’s easy to serve and protect. Fourteen officers from the Oceanside Fire and Police departments partnered with 15 Oceanside middle school students May 12 in a series of team-building and leadership games at the Guajome Park Academy Challenge Ropes Course.
Since June 1997, when Oceanside Police Lt. Steve Scarano started the Challenging Outdoor Personal Experience, or COPE, program, public safety personnel and students have teamed up at the ropes course 38 times. The curriculum varies from event to event, but mornings always start with a series of tasks that can only be accomplished cooperatively. One activity involved a team untangling itself out of a giant knot without ever losing hold of each other. Another involved moving a bucket of simulated deadly radioactive waste using a rope contraption that required all team members to operate it at once. During some of the challenges, the adults were told to keep quiet, letting the students run the show — which they did.
“All the youth here are definitely able to step up to the leadership role just as much as the adults are,” event coordinator Brent Bystedt said. “This group is a really good group. They’re all gung ho, willing to try.”
The challenges continued after lunch, when students and public servants literally took to the skies. One by one, they clambered up rock walls, ascended the dizzyingly tall “Powerpole,” and zoomed high across the field strapped via a harness to a zip line.
Finding the courage for these feats wasn’t easy, but the students and adults took strength from their peers’ shouts of encouragement. Many of the most frightened children, after completing a challenge, shouted, “I want to do that again!”
“I can’t believe I actually dared myself to do that,” Lincoln Middle School student Daisy Hernandez said after sailing down the zip line. “I thought it was going to be really, really scary, but it’s not.”
“I think it’s good for the adults, too,” Oceanside Police officer Toniann Rebick said. “I think that people forget that we have our fears … Every time, that last step is terrifying, (but) I always have this 12-year-old cheering me on.”
The main goal of COPE is to inspire both leadership and cooperative skills in Oceanside’s youth. Middle school, an awkward time between childhood and adulthood, is a critical time to build these abilities, Rebick said. With a stronger sense of confidence, she said, a teenager might avoid some of the pitfalls of adolescence.
At the same time, it serves as a kind of ambassador program, humanizing the people behind the badges. Many officers have kept in touch with their student partners years after their COPE event. The acquaintance runs both ways, giving Oceanside’s safety personnel a favorable sneak peek at the next generation.
“They’re kind to each other, they’re compassionate, they just get along well and they help each other out,” Scarano said. “It restores hope, you know? These are the people who are going to lead us.”