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At the start of State Police-American Legion Youth Week, Cheshire High School senior John O'Reilly expected a classroom setting. In actuality, the only time he sat down at a desk was on the morning of Graduation Day.
Thirty high school students from locations as far away as Florida were taken into a computer room and given two hours to write a personal essay about their experience from July 10-15 at the Connecticut State Police Youth Academy in Meriden. The prize was a scholarship.
“I didn't really expect to win,” recalled O'Reilly. “I poured my soul into it because this week meant so much to me.”
Not only did he win the scholarship, but O'Reilly was also the only student to speak at graduation. He read his essay aloud.
“I have some oratorical skills. I just went up there and spoke,” O'Reilly said. “It was nice to see the military lifestyle. I have a newfound respect for what the state police does everyday.”
The students lived the life of cadet recruits ranging from their training, duties, and expectations. O'Reilly shared the experience with CHS classmates Tyler DeAngelo, Mike Thomas, and Arbar Ghsai.
“That was really neat,” stated Thomas. “I wasn't sure who I would know besides Tyler.”
“Throughout the week, we had to learn leadership and teamwork,” explained DeAngelo. “Everybody has to be a leader because, if someone falls down, another person steps up.”
The American Legion was selective during the application process.
“We had to send a personal statement and photo,” added O'Reilly, who was referred by Cheshire resident John White. “They needed an essay about why we wanted to be part of the program. (CHS social studies teacher) Miss Kathleen Hoag wrote my recommendation. I was pretty excited to be chosen because the American Legion told me it is a hard program to get into and pass. It gave me confidence.”
Thomas had a personal connection being that his father is a state cop.
“I felt I had an advantage going in. It was good seeing what he did for 27 weeks,” said Thomas. “My goal in life is to be a state trooper. The program makes you realize what goes into it.”
DeAngelo has the same dream and actually did a job shadow with Mike's father prior to this program.
“I got a glimpse of the life as a cop and wanted to get more information,” reflected DeAngelo.
In the first couple days of Youth Week, DeAngelo felt fortunate that discipline is one of his strengths. Students were tested both physically and mentally after being introduced to the state troopers in the auditorium.
“They laid out five pens for us to sign our name, but only one of them had ink. We had to find it,” explained DeAngelo. “They made us find our bag in a crowd while we got yelled at. Then, we had to run a lap with it. You had to clean the room and make your bed. Some people were shook up by it.”
There was little time to socialize with a busy schedule from 5:15 a.m. to 9 p.m.
“They (state troopers) are very into what they do,” added O'Reilly. “A lot of what they do is life and death and expected us to treat it the same way. It was an incredible environment for learning.”
O'Reilly overcame a personal challenge.
“I've never been a swimmer and that was a big part of the program,” said O'Reilly. “I learned how and did pretty well. I was thankful.”
A large portion of the program was hands-on, including a trip to the driving range.
“They had us shoot at targets,” stated O'Reilly. “We used 22 (caliber) rifles and handguns. They did a demonstration with the AK-47.”
Another favorite experience involved emergency vehicles.
“They took us to a parking lot in Colchester and let us drive the different cars,” recalled Thomas. “It was so much fun.”
“The sergeants started to lighten up and you got to know them,” added DeAngelo.
Students were awarded diplomas at graduation.
“It was a really good feeling,” said DeAngelo. “Throughout the week, we really bonded. We got each other's numbers and will try to stay in touch.”