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Police officers are not "pigs," and youngsters growing up in the inner city are not "thugs" just waiting to be jailed.

Supporters of a program that has brought together a diverse group of teen-agers with members of the Erie County Sheriff's Department each summer for the last 13 years believe it is simply a matter of breaking down the barriers that have been created by stereotyping any one person or group.

The Sheriff and Youth Live-in Program, organized by the National Conference for Community and Justice and the Erie County Sheriff's Department, is fully funded by Delaware North Cos.

This is the 13th annual camp session, enabling a racially balanced group of teen-agers, ages 14 through 16, from city, suburban and rural areas of Western New York to live together with sheriff's deputies and share a weeklong camping experience that will hopefully bring them closer together.

NCCJ Executive Director Lana Benatovich said, "Our organizations have teamed up to give youth from across Erie County an opportunity to play, live and learn together. This year at Camp Lakeland, outside Franklinville, a diverse group of young people from the city, suburbs and Native American reservations spent last week building positive relationships with each other and with law enforcement officers from the Sheriff's Department."

She said the program was designed to provide improved communication by "encouraging frank and open dialogue between deputy sheriffs and youths. The intent is to separate the police officers temporarily from their official role and allow the youth a more personal experience with them."

Campers were selected by school counselors and other agencies for their interest in school and community activities and their desire to interact with the deputies and other teen-agers from different backgrounds.

This year, some 28 teen-agers and 14 male and female sheriff's deputy volunteers spent the week at the campgrounds.

Lt. Tom Flaherty, head of the Sheriff's Department Narcotics Bureau, said, "The key strategy of the program is to personalize the relationships between the youth and police.

He said the program "was founded on the belief that it would be a good opportunity to take kids to camp and have some fun, and they might learn that we're the same as other people. It's really a bonding experience.

"This is really a heterogeneous group of kids from all over; a real mix of kids."

He said on the first day of camp Aug. 17, the law enforcement officers and campers met in the evening for a traditional campfire and bull session and, "very spontaneously, a group of American Native kids got up and began to chant and dance around the fire. The other kids in the group were absolutely intense -- they got involved -- and it was very moving."

The campers and deputies also met each day for group sessions where they talked about "differences" and shared their insight on why -- despite their differences -- they really are all the same.

"We try to kind of bond with the kids and establish some mutual respect. We eat with them in mess hall and interact in sports and just spend all the time we can with them. Hopefully, we'll all go back to our lives better people for having been together," said Flaherty.

Janelle Cwik, 14, who attends Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts, said she wants some day to become an actress. "I learned a lot about people I didn't know. They are the same as everyone else I know, different, but the same."

Fifteen-year-old Duriel Price of Buffalo was nominated for the camp while he was being sentenced in court for something he'd rather not talk about.

"I was just a good kid in a bad place," he said.

The Honor Roll student at Hutchinson-Central Technical High School said he wished he could someday do summer work at Camp Lakeland, but this year's one-time experience, he said, has left him with a better understanding of the differences between people -- adults and youngsters.

"I've made new friends here," he said, "and while we all come from different places, we're all the same really."

Maria Montez, 14, was recommended by an outreach center on the West Side that deals with Hispanic families. She attends Buffalo Seminary as a sophomore and wants to join the U.S. Army when she graduates and specialize in computer technology.

"Hopefully," she said, "some day I'll be able to work for NASA.

"This camp program has helped me to really get to no more about policemen and how they feel. I've also learned about different cultures. Where I live, you never see an American Indian. I didn't think there'd be one here at camp. Listening to them sing and dance around the campfire gave me chills, and I shared in their pride in being exactly who they are."

"That," said Ms. Benatovich, "is the kid of legacy we hope to create each year. We want the campers and the police officers to share that kind of experience. Our hope is that the impact of their experience here may be multiplied in the communities they return to."

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