Just this once, I'm glad I was distracted when I signed up for something.
Normally, I'm a bit cautious about committing to anything that requires me to show up more than once.
But without a moment's hesitation, I signed up for the Fort Dodge/Webster County Citizen's Academy that was scheduled to run on eight Tuesdays for three hours a night. Three hours a night!?! I would NEVER had committed to three hours a night for two months if I had been paying complete attention - and I would have missed a wonderful opportunity.
The first class "graduated" Tuesday night, and I was among those who made all eight sessions. It sounds like a huge time commitment, and it was. But it was one of the best experiences I can remember in a very long time.
During those sessions, ordinary citizens had the opportunity to get an insider's view of how public safety works in Fort Dodge. Students heard from members of the Fort Dodge Police Department, Webster County Sheriff's Department, Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, Iowa State Patrol, Fort Dodge Fire Department, Iowa Department of Corrections, Webster County Attorney's Office and District Court Judge Thomas Bice.
We visited the com center where 911 calls come in, toured the community-based corrections facility (a.k.a, the halfway house), entered the fire tower training facility where we were walked through how an arson investigation is conducted and watched a live Taser demonstration. (Thank you, Assistant Chief Kevin Doty, for putting yourself in a most uncomfortable position for our benefit.)
The mother of a murder victim described how she learned of her daughter's death, how officials worked with the family and how she feels about the man who killed her child. A local drug investigator described the new synthetic marijuana and the latest method of making meth. Juvenile court system representatives explained the challenges of working with youngsters and ended the session with a story about a young woman who seemed destined to have an unhappy life but seems to have found her way back onto the right path. We watched a drug dog find planted drugs in a vehicle and his handler's keys that were tossed into a field 30 minutes earlier.
I usually hate interactive workships and classes, but I never felt pressured to participate in any of the hands-on activities. I took the personality assessment at the halfway house (No surprises there. I am who I thought I was), but passed on the chance to fire any of the sim-weapons during the SERT training session.
Every session had time for questions and answers, and that's part of what helped foster one of the most important aspects of Citizen's Academy - the relationships. Through the eight-week period, students and instructors developed an ease with each other that allowed comfortable exchanges between teachers and learners. Class members asked questions about everything from parking meters to why it seems to take so long for some criminal cases to reach the courts.
Fort Dodge Police Chief Tim Carmody brought the idea of Citizen's Academy to Fort Dodge, but it was cooperation among people in the aforementioned departments, and citizens' willingness to listen and learn that made the class successful.
At the end, there was a graduation ceremony. Judge Thomas Bice - who had also been one of our presenters - said some appreciative words, calling us bridge-builders. He said we are ambassadors to the community who need to get the word out that working together will improve public safety for everybody.
Photos were taken of us and of our instructors, some of whom were involved in only one session - but returned for our ceremony. We ate cake, received a certificate of completion signed by the Chief and Mayor Matt Bemrich, and, thanks to Crime Stoppers, a Citizen's Academy coffee mug. There are plans to hold future Citizen's Academies, and I would urge anyone and everyone to take advantage. It doesn't cost anything but your time, and it will change the way you see your community and the people who keep you safe every day.
Barbara Wallace Hughes is managing editor of The Messenger.