Explorer program teaches valuable life skills

Clark County Sheriff's Office challenges young people to grow, learn

By Erik Hidle, Columbian staff writer

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The official goal of the Clark County Sheriff's Office Explorer program is to offer young people "an opportunity to observe the criminal justice system and assist them in making an informed career decision."

But don't believe only the official line, because the program is much more than that.

Ask any of the young people enrolled in the program what it means, and you'll hear about police stuff, sure, but they also say it teaches you to rise up both mentally and physically.

"Explorers sets a standard," said Jacinda Rose, a high school junior from Ridgefield who is in the program. "It puts a higher standard on you to learn about everything."

Rose would know. She's a recent champion of a statewide Explorer camp physical agility test. That challenge included a dummy drag, some sprints through a marked course and a bear crawl to the finish line.

And that's not even the tough part. The camp offers up exposure to some of the paramilitary structure still prevalent in law enforcement. There are drills and chores, and for first-timers there are times when you just get yelled at.

The common thought is the yelling teaches participants how to cope with stress.

"Oh, it definitely helps," Rose said. "There is absolutely a purpose, and it works."

So while the program does offer education on law enforcement, there's more to it than that. It also works to help young people grow up, make good decisions and learn from mistakes.

"The explorer program isn't just for people who want to have a job in law enforcement," said Anji Dean, a junior from Camas. "It teaches you the simple skills, too, the stuff that makes you realize you can be better at things, if you want to."

That belief is instilled largely by their leader.

"All of us will probably thrive one day because we met Gardner," Dean said.

That is Clark County sheriff's Sgt. Shane Gardner. He's the community outreach officer and liaison to the county's many neighborhood associations.

Earlier this year, Gardner received an award from Clark County during the "State of the County" address recognizing his efforts in building closer ties with the community.

And at some point over the past year, all three Clark County commissioners have individually mentioned Gardner in a positive light. If you're following Clark County politics, you know those three barely agree on anything.

Gardner also heads the Explorer program, and he sells it as a way to keep getting better at life in general.

"When you talk to kids about hard work, and responsibility, and goal planning and keeping your word, it doesn't matter if they go into law enforcement," Gardner said. "Because public service is a huge part of what we do, and that's what we teach."

Gardner can go on and on about the success he sees in Explorer participants. And when he does, it becomes clear he thinks every youth has potential.

"The more kids you come across, the more stories you get," he said. "And the more opportunities you see."

The bottom line to Gardner is that you should never give up on them. You teach them to work hard, and you teach them to always try to get better. And the message is getting through.

"You can never say you are good enough at anything," Dean said. "Gardner says you can always be better. He's right."

The program is open to students or graduates age 15 1/2 to 21 across the county and offers several activities including ride-alongs with officers, physical competitions, campouts and community service activities.

The criteria for enrollment includes a minimum grade point average and, as Gardner puts it, "making it clear you are working on making good decisions."