Perhaps not unlike most kids, 13-year-old Alisha Ramos always found police officers a little intimidating. That all changed after she participated in Kids United, the Elgin Police Department's summer youth program.
"At first it was a little strange," Alisha said. "Then I started getting more comfortable with them. You see they are normal people."
Fellow participant Mario Mares, 13, agreed. "You think they're just out there trying to arrest people, but after this I realized that they actually care about us," Mario said.
Helping youth become familiar with police officers is one of the benefits of Kids United, the goal of which is to foster leadership and good citizenry while giving kids a safe place to be, said Elgin Police Sgt. Gary Neal.
"We also address social needs and communicating effectively," he said. "We try to help them develop from the inside out."
Neal supervises the department's seven school resource officers -- assigned to Elgin's four middle schools and three high schools -- all of whom participate in the program, held at Abbot Middle School.
Kids ages 9 to 12 attend on Mondays and Wednesdays, while the older kids attend on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Outdoor activities include rugby, soccer, Frisbee and hula hoop challenges, while arts and crafts, cooking classes, basketball camps, and board games take place indoors.
On Fridays there are field trips, which this summer included a Kane County Cougars game, Angelic Organics in Caledonia, and Irons Oaks Environmental Learning Center in Olympia Fields.
Getting through the high ropes course in Olympia Fields was scary but really worth it, said Vincent Arias, 16.
"I don't really like heights so it was hard. But you have to trust your partner," said Vincent, who didn't go this year but has done it twice in the past.
Elgin Detective Kathy Schreiner said that getting to know school resource officers like her can help kids during difficult transitions into middle school and high school.
"They walk in and they see a familiar face, as opposed to not knowing any of the staff," she said.
Kids United, which began in 2007, has grown steadily to attract up to 100 younger kids and up to 45 older kids on any given day, Neal said. All told, up to 400 kids participate throughout the summer, he said.
This year, 22 volunteers through Elgin's parks and recreation department volunteers have helped run the program, putting in more than 900 volunteer hours.
Twin sisters Kirndeep "Karen" and Jasjeet "Jas" Kaur, incoming seniors at Northern Illinois University, also have been helping out since they were juniors at Elgin High School.
"At first it started as (volunteer) hours for National Honor Society, then we kept coming," Karen said. "It was nice, helping out the kids and doing different activities, especially physical activities."
The program, which ends Aug. 5, is a great place to make friends, said David Peña, 17.
"When I started I was shy. I thought they would make fun of me like in school," he said. "But I learned there are all kinds of different people."