Explorers groups come together at leadership academy

The annual Redwood Coast Explorer Leadership Academy is back in full swing this week as the Explorers make Del Norte High School their home for the week.

Every year, law enforcement Explorers from around Del Norte gather at the high school for a week of intense classes and workouts. For the first time this year, however, the academy has expanded to included all of the Explorer programs in the area.

"This is the first year that all these other Explorer agencies have come," said Erik Apperson, who started the academy in 2003 and has been running it ever since. "In the past we have had Explorers from other areas come, but they were all law enforcement. The main difference this year is it is all local kids, but we have Fire Explorers, Del Norte Ambulance Explorers, Sheriff's Explorers, the Police Explorers and the Sea Cadets.

"We put all of those Explorers together and we have been able to hold classes that are a little bit more universal. The curriculum encompasses a multitude of courses that would apply to all of those."

In all, 33 local Explorersbetween the ages of 12 and 19 started the week at the academy, and Apperson is hopeful that all 33 will be able to graduate.

With a more diverse group of Explorers, the focus of the camp has also shifted a little. This year, the main rallying cry for the academy is that they are all on the "same team."

"Cooperation is the big thing this year," said Tom Phillips, who works with the Del Norte Ambulance Explorers. "They are not all just from one facet of public safety. They are coming together and they are learning that the EMS needs to know what fire and police do and vice versa. They are all kind of learning how to do that together. Out in the real world, I go to calls all the time that fire and police are at. I don't know all of the stuff that they do, but I need to have some sort of an idea of what they are looking for and what their job is."

This is the third trip to the academy for current Police Explorer Kayleah Davis. She said this year's academy has been a little different so far than her first two but it has been fun learning about the other aspects of public safety.

"The highlight for me so far has just been getting to know everyone so well," Davis said. "All of us have similar interests and we all have the same passion. It is good to meet people that are similar to you and to get to form a team together."

While the Explorers are in the camp, they do a lot of learning in an academic setting as they get certified in CPR, first aid and incident command. They are also instructed by various professionals in courses about ethics, drugs, gangs, defensive tactics, rappeling and water survival.

"Every instructor that we have is a volunteer," Apperson said. "These are all people that have professional lives and they are doing some pretty incredible things. They are seen as specialists in whatever class they are instructing."

In addition to hours' worth of class work every day, the Explorers also do a lot of physical training with obstacle courses, a rock climbing wall provided by the U.S. Army recruiters and other various activities. The academy even has its own Marine drill sergeant in Staff Sgt. Alan Inchaurregui, who is taking the week off as the lead Marine Corps recruiter in Del Norte and northern and eastern Humboldt counties.

"Most of what I am focusing on is discipline, attention to orders, teamwork and a lot of development," Inchaurregui said. "Some of these young men and women have never really been challenged under pressure before."

Inchaurregui said that while the PT at the academy isn't as rough as Marines boot camp, he wanted to give the kids a little taste of what it is like.

"They can learn that you react differently under pressure, whether it is physical or mental pressure," Inchaurregui said. "It helps that I am wearing a drill instructor's uniform as well."

Although Inchaurregui said he has to be intense in order to push the kids, it may surprise them to know that he actually has a lot of respect for each of them.

"I am kind of a softy at heart," Inchaurregui said. "I like the fact that these kids give up their free time to be here and better themselves and hopefully do something in the service community as well. Hopefully this will be something that keeps them on the straight and narrow."

Coping with disaster

The Explorers will also get several opportunities to put their newfound skills and knowledge to the test with several scenarios they will face throughout the week.

The first such scenario will happen today at 2 a.m. as the high school will be the scene of a fake bombing.

"We are going to wake them up at 2 a.m. Thursday morning with a bomb scenario: A bomb went off, there is no power and there is no visibility. They will have to go through this devastated room and try to find people that need help in there," Apperson said.

The Explorers will each represent their own agency and try to work together to identify and rescue people (crash dummies) that need help.

"In a real life situation the fire department would respond, the ambulance would respond, we might call on local military to respond and the police are definitely going to be there," Apperson said.

Life after high school

Many of the Explorers, like Fire Explorer George Jobb, say they are hoping to begin a career in the field that they are now exploring.

That was certainly the case for Sonia Cortez, a 2007 Del Norte High School graduate who participated in the academy from 2004andndash;07. Cortez admitted that she was hanging out with a rough crowd early on in high school and thanks the Redwood Coast Explorer Leadership Academy and the Explorer program for helping her get back onto a good path. It also helped springboard her into her career.

"Right after high school, I started working at the Police Department because I was an Explorer," Cortez said. "Then I started working at juvenile hall for 3andfrac12; years then 4 or 5 months ago I moved down to Sonoma County and have been working at juvenile hall there."

Super Saturday

The Redwood Coast Explorer Leadership Academy will conclude on Saturday but not before they get a chance to show the community what they have been up to.

First, the Explorers will take an extra-special glory run starting at about 10 a.m. from the Home Depot parking lot to South Beach.

While the glory run is a tradition for the academy, this year's run will be a little more special. The Explorers will meet up with Ivan Stoltzfus, who is completing a cross-county trip from Manasquan, N.J., to Crescent City for the Wounded Warrior Project, an organization that advocates for and aids wounded veterans. The Explorers will accompany Stoltzfus on the final leg of his journey and stick around to watch the ceremony on South Beach.

"We have several kids that are going into the military after this, two of our three academy commanders are veterans, we have an active staff sergeant for the Marine Corps serving as a drill instructor, and we have two sergeants from the Army that are also helping out," Apperson said.

After the glory run, the academy will hold an Explorers graduation ceremony at 3 p.m.

"I would strongly encourage people to show up even if they are not directly related to somebody in the academy just because it is an eye opener as to what has happened this last week," Apperson said. "It is also nice to show support for our kids that are working so hard. It would be nice to see a full room."

Reach Michael Zogg at mzogg@triplicate.com.