Kids get hands-on training to be better leaders

MAHWAH, N.J. — They yell “Sir, yes, sir!” with the vigor of police cadets.

But the 161 trainees in this platoon are teenagers who gave up video games and days by the pool to learn how to be better team members and leaders.

The Mahwah middle and high school students are participating in a week-long Youth Leadership Academy run by the Mahwah Police Department at Ramapo College.

It’s five days of activities that help build skills in communication, cooperation, planning and problem solving.

“We’ve kind of been at the forefront of this whole thing,” said Mahwah Police Chief James Batelli.

The 4-year-old program grew from Mahwah’s 9-year-old Junior Police Academy, a two week-long course that’s geared toward sixth-graders who learn techniques used by law enforcement.

“The Junior Police Academy was so popular that we decided to start this for the older kids,” said Sgt. Robert Curtis, commanding officer of the Youth Leadership Academy.

“It’s a nice way to show them new things, practical things that they can use as they go off to college,” said officer Joe Horn, the YLA’s executive officer and director of operations.

Towns from across the state — including Park Ridge, Washington Township, Brick and Cape May — have used the Mahwah JPA as a model in creating their own program. The YLA has not yet been duplicated, Batelli said.

The cadets — dressed in white T-shirts with the program insignia on the front and their last names on the back — listened to biographies of real-life leaders, came up with team names and designed shields to represent them and participated in challenges that required planning and coordination to earn points for their team.

“I come to be with my friends and also to learn how to be a leader,” said Julia Anzano, 14, who is attending her third year at the YLA. “As the week goes on, you start realizing you’re becoming more responsible and how much more open-minded you become when you work with other people.”

Under the hot, late morning sun, the 15 teams marched across Route 202 to Continental Soldiers Field for a water balloon challenge. For every yard a balloon was thrown and successfully caught, the team would earn one point. Each team got 50 balloons and they were invited to bring items from home to assist them.

Some used sling shots and lacrosse sticks to help with tossing and bed sheets and towels to increase their chances of catching the projectiles.

Some stayed close to the thrower, reasoning that many 10 yard passes were better than wasting balloons trying catch them beyond the 50 yard line. Others tried for a long shot hoping for a big score.

As Matt Skopin, 14, watched from the stands after his team was done competing, he reveled in the fun of it. Skopin took a week off from day camp to attend the YLA.

“Here it’s much more team oriented ... everybody has a common goal,” he said. “And the police officers are fun to be around. They’re very approachable.”

Between eight and 10 Mahwah police officers serve as instructors for the program.

“We believe it’s that important that we want to commit these resources,” Chief Batelli said.

The program acts as an intermediary to bullying, he said, by mixing kids ranging from eighth to 12th grade, some of whom know each other and others who do not. “It can eliminate future problems in the school system and the town,” Batelli said.

There is a $225 registration fee per child and putting together the YLA costs another $30,000. The tab is picked up by the Mahwah Municipal Alliance and covers the cost of food, use of the college for both the daytime activities and three overnight stays, a field trip, T-shirts and other materials.

The cadets also do a charitable activity (this year they collected sporting goods that will be donated to a Paterson organization) and will parlay what they learned this summer into a townwide fall activity. The teens will choose a Guinness Book world record to try to break and organize the execution of it.