Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office delivers donations collected for upcoming summer camp

Sierra Rains
Northwest Florida Daily News

SHALIMAR — The men and women of the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office's Youth Services Division traveled more than 300 miles last weekend to deliver supplies to one of Florida’s newest summer camps for under-served youths. 

The trip was the result of a five-month event called Operation Cram the Canoe, in which school resource officers collected donations of everything from canoes to fishing supplies to bicycles to bug repellant. 

All donations are aimed to provide a fun summer experience for kids ages 10 to 15 attending Camp Sorenson. The newly renovated camp is one of three offered by the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches

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The Florida Sheriff’s Youth Ranches renovated and renamed the former First Baptist Church of Jacksonville retreat center in Hilliard last year in preparation for its first group of children, who will arrive at Camp Sorenson on June 18. 

The OCSO has been supporting the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches and attending its camps for several years. Lt. Demeika McClendon, who oversees the Youth Services Division, said they began collecting donations for the camps a few years back after recognizing a need. 

The donations flooded in this year for one of the largest amounts of supplies to date. Four canoes were in the parking lot at the Okaloosa County Administration Building in Shalimar as the school resource officers loaded up Friday, all stuffed with various camping supplies and accompanied by a row of bikes. 

“After COVID-19 and everything, I think people were just ready to get out and start doing. They really stepped up in a big way. You can see everything we have here, and there’s a van load inside still that we haven’t taken out,” said David Bowell, a school resource officer at Bruner Middle School. 

Okaloosa County Sheriff's Deputy Chris Fordham and Lt. Demeika McClendon load bicycles into a van to be taken to Camp Sorenson in Hilliard. Collected through the department's Operation Cram the Canoe, the supplies will be used at the newest of the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches.

Schools, businesses, nonprofits and even some of the OCSO deputies stepped up to provide items and monetary donations. 

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The canoes were each wrapped with displays recognizing some of the top donors, including Crestview and Fort Walton Beach High Schools, Plew Elementary School, OCSO Sheriff’s Star Charity, Boogies Watersports, Fraternal Order of Police North Okaloosa Lodge No. 146, the Youth Services Division and the Sheriff’s Office. 

“We just have a lot of support and people are willing to help. All you have to do is ask, and our SROs are doing that,” McClendon said. “They hosted it at their schools and they had a canoe in each one of their schools or they had a box that mimicked the canoe, and kids were able to donate.”

The canoes will be put to use during an outing at the camp. Boys and girls will participate in many other recreational activities like archery, swimming and rope climbing to help them build teamwork and peer communication skills. 

“If you’ve never experienced the camp, it’s a normal summer camp just like everybody would think of, but it’s for kids who normally wouldn’t get the opportunity to go,” Bowell said. 

The camp also provides an opportunity for deputies and other law enforcement volunteers to get personally involved with the kids and form bonds. The OCSO will send eight school resource officers to help chaperone this year, each one volunteering their own time. 

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This will be Bowell’s 11th year attending one of the camps offered by the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches. He said he grew up going to summer camp and enjoys getting to spend time with kids who otherwise might not have been able to enjoy the type of experiences he did in his youth. 

“It’s a great experience for the kids and it’s a great experience for us,” Bowell said. “You have kids that start off not really wanting to talk to us, and by the end of the camp we’re best friends.” 

Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office Deputy Chris Fordham and Sgt. Jason Folley load bicycles into a truck to be taken to Camp Sorenson, the newest summer camp operated by the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches.

The officers spend all week with the kids in plain clothes, and then on the last day they put on their uniforms and parade through the camp in their patrol cars. 

McClendon said kids often leave the camps with a more positive outlook on law enforcement and the experience sometimes makes an impact that can last a lifetime. 

“You just grow a connection with them that whole week that you’re with them. It’s an awesome experience,” McClendon said. “These kids get to learn leadership skills, learn how to get through tough times, build relationships with law enforcement chaperones. It’s just an awesome event and our school resource officers are proud to serve.”