*Originally published in the Appalachian News-Express*
By Buddy Forbes
Trooper Island is empty this week, taking a bye-week from the campers who have enjoyed its amenities this summer. However, the “thriving” camp will be back in action next week to keep doing what it does best — provide Kentucky kids with a summer to remember.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. A lot of times, we take stuff for granted. Sometimes even the simplest things. This island helps you see what’s important,” said Kentucky State Police trooper Steven Mounts.
Trooper Island is operated by the Kentucky State Police (KSP) in a remote location on Dale Hollow Lake in Clinton County, giving campers and troopers a week of isolated campground fun. The camp, established in 1965, is free for underprivileged boys and girls ages 10-12.The camp spans from Monday morning to Friday night, giving the kids plenty of time for a summer camp free of technology.
Trooper Mounts, of Post 9 in Pikeville, recently returned from his week of fun with Post 9 (Pikeville) area and Post 13 (Hazard) area kids.
“It’s hard to sum up. It’s what camping should be. It’s not anything electronic; we’re outside every day. It’s just an outdoor experience like an old camp that you would think of,” said Mounts.
Mounts said Monday is devoted to making sure everyone’s needs are supplied for the week, as well as assessing the kids’ swimming abilities. The campers begin their routines Tuesday morning, getting them ready for a structure-filled week.
“Something else we instill in them is just something as little as structure,” said Mounts.
Mounts said the campers wake up at a specific time every day and head straight to the flag pole, where the National Anthem is played and the Pledge of Allegiance is recited.
“Every single morning, that’s what they do before they go to breakfast. And they get those three square meals a day. That kind of structure, it’s something some of these kids have never had,” Mounts added.
According to Mounts, the kids’ “classes” are broken into different blocks. Those classes include archery, canoeing, fishing, recreation and swimming.
Also on Tuesday, the troopers take part in a “Trooper Swim” which is a “dangerous undercover initiative” during which the troopers join the campers in the pool and “hope to survive.”
“We all get in the pool with them and they just climb on us and try to drown us. It’s us and about 70 kids and we’re fending for our lives,” said Mounts.
Like the Trooper Swim, each day ends in some form of what Mounts called “Trooper Time.”
“They’ve spent all day with the counselors and learned all of these different skills, and we’re involved in that too, but it’s pretty much whatever we want to do after that,” he said.
Mounts mentioned kickball, softball, tug-of-war and more, saying those moments of quality time with the kids are the reason the camp is so important.
“We really get some good one-on-one time, to sit down and talk to them and just interact with them on a completely normal level,” he said. “On a complete shorts and T-shirt level. At this point, they’ve not seen any of us in a uniform. They know we’re troopers, but they’ve only seen us in normal clothes, playing around.”
However, on Wednesday evening, Mounts said the mood takes a small shift.
“At about 9 p.m., we’ll go put our uniforms on while the counselors gather the kids together and explain that something is about to happen — they’re getting ready to meet the troopers in a little bit of a different way,” said Mounts. “We go out and the commander of Trooper Island explains that we’re standing in front of a monument and that the monument represents those who have fallen in the past.”
The monument is a wall of honor, erected on the island in memory of KSP’s fallen heroes.
“The commander of the island explains that we’re there because of the time we’re giving and those troopers are represented there because of what they gave — the ultimate sacrifice,” said Mounts.
Mounts said there is a visual reaction from the campers when they see the uniformed officers during this ceremony.
“It’s the first time they get to see us in uniform. So, they’re taken back by it,” he said. “We break from there and go to a different place on the island to have a Q&A session. We pretty much open the floor to them. They can ask all of the crazy questions that have been burning in their heart. We get personal with them on an official level. They’re seeing us in uniform and they’re asking us work questions.”
Mounts said easing into the uniform reveal is a big deal in building relationships on the island.
“After that, their whole demeanor sort of changes toward us a little. But it’s not what it would have been had we shown up initially in uniform,” he said.
Mounts said most of the time, showing up in uniform gets a more closed reaction and would have significantly impacted the way in which the children interacted with the officers on a personal basis.
“If we had shown up in uniform, nine times out of 10, they would have locked up and not went out to have fun with us. They would have just looked at us differently,” said Mounts. “But, the way we do it, you can kind of see that revelation in their mind — ‘Hey, I played ball with that guy earlier. He isn’t such a bad guy.’”
The stigma that comes with the uniform, based on media or personal family experiences, can often force kids to close off, according to Mounts. He said this helps to clarify the idea that troopers are humans who just want to serve and protect the community — or play a little game of pick-up. He said it’s something of which he is proud to be a part.
“It’s an awesome place, an awesome program and I’m proud to be a part of it,” he said. “I get to see it from start to finish. I get to see it from the money that’s raised, to the actual selection of the kids, to the first bus ride down, to when we get home to drop them off.”
The camp is 100 percent donor-funded, made possible through private donations, business donations and KSP fundraising.
“Not one cent of state money or funds is used for Trooper Island. It’s ran completely off of donations. The donations come from businesses throughout the Commonwealth and private individuals, but we also have a lot of money that comes in from events each post hosts,” said Mounts.
Post 9 organized a youth baseball tournament earlier this year and is preparing to host a Jeep Ride on July 29 and a Motorcycle Ride on Sept. 23. An overall fundraiser, in which each post sales raffle tickets for a vehicle, is a huge fundraiser for the island. This year, the KSP is raffling off a 2017 Jeep Wrangler.
While Mounts said the camp is “thriving” through it’s funding, he encouraged those in the Commonwealth to research the camp to see ways they can help it become the best camp in the nation.
“We’re not only trying to make it the best camp in the Commonwealth, we’re trying to make it the best camp in the nation. If people look into it and see what it is, they might get more involved and see what they can do to help out the program,” he said.
For more information about Trooper Island, or to take part in one of the KSP fundraisers, visit, kentuckystatepolice.org/island.html.