Extra eyes and ears


GREENFIELD — For most Hancock County residents, a trip to the 4-H fair might include a jaunt up the midway, a stop at an elephant ear stand for a sweet treat and a visit to the livestock pens.

Anthony Hilligoose has had a different experience. He has helped break up fights, stopped trespassers, spotted weapons and assisted in medical emergencies.

Hilligoose, 19, is one of a handful of volunteers involved with the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department’s Explorer program, an initiative that introduces young adults to the ins and outs of police work by giving them hands-on experience alongside the pros.

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During fair week, the Explorers lend a hand in keeping the fairgrounds a safe place to families to enjoy the flurry of activity.

Hilligoose has been involved with the Explorers for more than four years. The experiences he’s had with the group have helped him solidify his plans to pursue a career in law enforcement.

“(Explorers) is like a vocational school,” he said. “You’re doing the work and seeing things firsthand.”

The cadets, as the Explorer program participants are called, work closely with law enforcement to assist with security and other tasks.

Dressed in matching red polo shirts and carrying department radios, they help direct traffic, man the sheriff’s booth and patrol the fairgrounds to keep an eye out for trouble.

“They are extra eyes and ears,” Maj. Brad Burkhart, the sheriff’s department chief deputy, said.

“If they see something out of line, they step in and can radio a deputy if things get out of hand.”

Sheriff’s Explorers are a facet of the Boy Scouts of America’s career-exploring program, said Sheriff’s Lt. Donnie Munden, who leads the program each year.

Explorer program participants gain on-the-job experience through job-shadowing professionals in business, engineering, social services, public safety and a handful of other fields. They gain insight on what a career in these area would be like and are often able to decide early on if it’s a career they’d like to pursue.

“Some kids stick with it, some don’t,” Munden said. “I always tell the kids this is important decide now; before you (pick) a major, go through four years of school, get a job and then decide they don’t want to do it.”

Law enforcement Explorer programs started in the early 1980s and were popular across the country and in Hancock County. Several current law enforcement leaders participated in the local program as teens before going on to pursue careers in the field, including Munden, Burkhart and Greenfield Police Chief John Jester, who all went through the program at the same time.

Youth involvement dropped off, and liabilities became a concern in 1990s. For nearly two decades, the county’s program was inactive until Munden revamped it in 2009 after it became affiliated with the Boy Scouts.

About 15 teens participate in the department’s Explorer program each year, Munden said. They witness police trainings, take ride-alongs and complete first-aid and firearms courses. About 50 young adults have graduated since 2009.

The fair is one county event that gives cadets a lot of hands-on training.

“The crowds can get a little unruly,” Munden said. “You never know what you’re going to get from night to night.”

Nikki Jenkins, 16, has been an Explorer for only a few weeks, but the fair and its host of activities have helped her hit the ground running with the program.

She’s had to admonish people for speeding and for trying to ride skateboards or bicycles where they weren’t allowed and even had to ask men to put on shirts in order to enter.

While gaining these experiences of interacting with the public, Jenkins said, the group’s goal is to help keep the fair a family-friendly event.

Working the fair isn’t necessarily fun, Hilligoose said; it’s hot, hard work for sometimes long hours. But he said it is worth it for the experience.

“There is always something going on,” he said.

“But it makes you feel good to know you’re doing something for someone else.”