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Non-profit pairing kids with first responders continues to open hearts, make memories

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Posted at 4:42 PM, Jul 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-22 18:39:50-04

VERMILION, Ohio — First responders from all over Lorain County shed their badges and patches this week to give dozens of boys and young men a slice of normalcy and a lifetime of memories. Hosted by Operation Open Heart, a non-profit founded by a patrolman in 1962, a summer camp pairs first responders with young adults in the child welfare system in hopes of providing friendship and understanding.

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The five-day summer camp put on by the volunteers that make up Operation Open Heart wrapped up Friday morning at Vermilion River Reservation in Vermilion. The annual summer camp, which had been postponed the previous two years because of the coronavirus pandemic, provides the young boys the opportunity to experience places and activities that they may not be able to otherwise experience in their daily lives.

“This is a week where it truly changes everyone’s life. They are just boys and their lives are so much more than whatever labels society put on them,” said Ray Santiago, an Ohio State Highway Patrol sergeant and president of Operation Open Heart. “We shed our labels too. They see our patches and they see our patrol cars but that is just part of making them feel special.”

The week-long summer camp begins with each child being picked up by a first responder in an emergency vehicle with lights and sirens blaring. The kids are also ferried to and from other special daily activities in marked emergency vehicles, which adds to the experience, Santiago said. However, these trips are all but a small part of the entire week.

“This week is about exposing them to places and experiences that they may not get in their daily lives,” Santiago said. “It’s just about letting them forget about whatever their situations are for just a week and to just be boys. They allow us to forget about all of our stresses and to just be men, too.”

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Operation Open Heart was founded in 1962 by a patrolman that had spent his childhood in the foster care system. Initially partnering with Green Acres, the former orphanage in Lorain County that closed in 1995, the non-profit now partners with the county’s division of children and family services. Many of the kids attending this week’s camp have faced numerous difficulties in life through no fault of their own, Santiago said.

“We want to help these boys realize their full potential and understand that there are resources and people that care about them, despite whatever situations they may find themselves in,” Santiago said. “While their lives may not look traditional, they have these alternative resources available to them and we all care.”

Santiago, who is in his first year as the president of the non-profit, was urged to join more than a decade ago by former state trooper and current part-time Sheffield Lake police officer A.J. Torres.

Torres has been involved with the organization for three decades.

“Wherever I work, they know this is Operation Open Heart week. I dedicate 100 percent to being out here with the kids,” Torres said. “It means something to them. That’s what we’re trying to do for the kids in Lorain County. We want them to know that us law enforcement officers are human too and that we’re here to support them.”

Given his 30 years within the organization, Torres said he has met past alumni of the program who have gone on to go to college, earn degrees and otherwise lead fruitful and productive lives despite their difficult upbringings.

“Seeing that makes it all worthwhile,” Torres said.

The kids aren’t the only beneficiaries of the program, Santiago said, and in many cases, it’s difficult to discern whether it’s the adults helping the children or the other way around.

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“I don’t think the boys realize how much of a help they are to us as much as we are to them,” Santiago said. “You see their faces and we have this final breakfast in the morning and you have boys telling you that they don’t want to go home. That hits you.”

Operation Open Heart runs entirely off the backs of volunteers and donations, Santiago said.

“Everyone that you see here is putting in vacation leave, taking personal time,” Santiago said. “We’re taking time away from our families and our jobs. We’re here purely voluntarily. It’s good for the soul.”

For more information on Operation Open Heart as well as to donate, click here.