Emily Beal-Nelis and her son Cody of Indiana joined campers from across the nation at grief camp for surviving families of America’s fallen law enforcement officers in East Troy last week. (Photo by Vanessa Lenz)

By Vanessa Lenz

SLN staff

Fourteen years ago Jennifer Thacker was forced to find a way to keep living without the man she loved most.

She was supposed to build her perfect life alongside Brandon Thacker, who she married shortly after graduating from college.

That dream came to a sudden halt in 1998 when Brandon, an agent with the Kentucky Department of Alcohol and Beverage Control, was shot and killed while on duty.

Jennifer was left to raise their 18-month-old daughter Katherine alone.

“When your life is shattered at such a young age when your dreams aren’t even realized yet, it’s very hard to figure out how you’re going to move forward,” Jennifer said.

Jennifer found the comfort she needed after discovering Concerns of Police Survivors Camp, a weeklong experience designed specifically for the children and spouses of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty.

Jennifer, who now serves as the Director of National Outreach for COPS, said the organization gave her hope and understanding that she couldn’t find anywhere else.

“This camp for me has really helped build a life for my daughter and I that is something positive,” she said. “It’s filled with joy and happiness, but of course there’s still a lot of sadness because of what we both miss with her dad not being here.”

Katherine, like many other COPS campers, has only really known life without a father.

“She doesn’t know the feeling you get from the love of a dad and doesn’t know what it’s like to have the unconditional love of a dad and that fierce protectiveness that you get from a dad,” Jennifer said.

Today, Jennifer and her daughter use their tragedy to help others.

While Katherine, 15, spent last week as a veteran camper at COPS Outward Bound retreat, Jennifer joined campers, ages 6-14, from across the nation at COPS Kids Camp at the Salvation Army Lake Camp in East Troy.

Escorted by the lights and sirens of local and state law enforcement, the young campers and their parents/guardians arrived in town on July 30 focused on healing and rebuilding their lives.

In addition to participating in camp activities such as fishing, swimming, boating, archery and team-building exercises, each camper attended professional counseling sessions daily to help deal with their grief and loss.

Jennifer said it’s important for campers to be able to tell stories of their parents/spouses who gave their lives to help others.

“The way our culture is, for these children to express that a parent is dead is really not acceptable,” Jennifer said. “A lot of these children get the message that they’re odd or different or there is something wrong with them because they have a mom or dad who is dead.”

Emily Beal-Nelis and her son Cody, 12, of Indiana, made their sixth trip to the grief camp.

“Each year we learn something that’s going to get us to the next year at camp,” Emily said.

Emily and her late husband Jason Beal were high school sweethearts. Jason, an Indiana State Police trooper, was killed, when Emily was four months pregnant with Cody.

“As a mom and a surviving spouse, I definitely believe that being here, watching the other kids and hearing the other parents has made me a better parent,” Emily said.

She said the camp creates deep bonds among campers with friendships that carry on year-round.

“We are more family now than friends, we’ve gotten so close,” Emily said.

Cody said he likes being with other kids dealing with the death of a parent and getting a chance to remember his dad.

This year, he achieved his longtime goal by winning a first-place trophy in a .22 rifle shooting competition.

“When I first came here, one of the kids gave me his first place trophy because I was sad I didn’t get one,” Cody said.

Cody is hoping to return next year to shoot the gun his mom bought for his father during their first Christmas together.

LaToya Bryant of Atlanta, Ga. said she would continue to attend COPS Camp until all four of her children have graduated from the program.

“For me it’s always great to be around people who can relate to your situation and hear their stories and what they are going through…” LaToya said. “It’s a relief to know that you aren’t the only person having those same feelings.”

Her husband, officer Ricky Bryant of the DeKalb County Police Department, was shot and killed while working an off duty, uniformed security detail at an apartment complex in Decatur, Ga. in 2008.

COPS Camp has provided all four of the Bryant children a safe place to heal their wounds.

“I like being around people who can relate to what I’m going through,” Justice Bryant, 12, said.

Another highlight for Justice was the two fish she caught the previous afternoon. Justice learned to fish at camp last year with the assistance of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wardens.

This is the ninth year the COPS organization has held a camp in East Troy.

COPS connected with the 180-acre Salvation Army Camp in 2003 after a volunteer discovered it following Harley-Davidson’s 100th anniversary celebration.

“We love coming here. It’s been a great fit for the needs of COPS Kids Camp for sure,” said Jennifer.

However, she said the camp might soon be outgrowing the facilities as its numbers continue to increase.

“There’s a part of us that doesn’t want to grow, but it means that families are coming to us for support,” Jennifer said.

In addition to Kids Camp, COPS hosts a wilderness experience for teens and weekend retreats for affected adults.

COPS provides programs at no cost to survivors with the assistance of various sponsors.

The non-profit organization, which is headquartered in Camdenton, Mo., currently serves nearly 30,000 surviving families.

Visit www.nationalcops.org for more information.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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