EPHRATA — By the time she was 18 years old, 1st Lt. Karen Hildebrand, commander of the Ephrata Civil Air Patrol squadron, had already learned to fly. She’d conducted search and rescue missions and had traveled across the country as a CAP cadet.
As a kid, the CAP experience made her more responsible and more capable. Now as an adult, she commands a squadron, working to instill those same qualities in the next generation.
Much has changed in the years between, which has created challenges for Hildebrand that squadron commanders in decades past didn’t have to contend with. A part of the Air Force, CAP has three primary missions: emergency services, cadet programs and aerospace education. The cadet programs seek to instill the qualities of integrity, volunteer service, excellence and respect.
That mission isn’t as simple as it once was. Where most young cadets of Hildebrand’s generation got involved with CAP as a stepping stone into the military, or because they wanted to learn to fly, the Ephrata squadron’s recruits largely come from at-risk youth. Hildebrand has taken on the task of turning them into responsible young men and women.
Many come from single-parent or low-income households of various backgrounds. Maybe there’s no male influence, or a family dynamic that may not have always been very stable. Now little Johnny is running amok among his peers and needs some discipline, Hildebrand said.
“A lot of our kids, when we first get them, they don’t have the concept of integrity, they don’t necessarily have the concept of respect,” Hildebrand said. “Volunteer service can be unfathomable to them. That’s not all kids; some just want to fly, some want to join the military, but a lot of our kids don’t necessarily fit the CAP core demographic.”
Shaping these kids into responsible cadets can take many forms, and the lessons that CAP has tried to instill in them runs the gamut.
“We teach how to cope, how to problem-solve, how to take ownership. We teach communication, responsibility, independence — we work with them and teach them all the stuff that they don’t get elsewhere,” Hildebrand said.
To Hildebrand, an integral part of teaching those lessons has been raising expectations for her cadets and getting them to care deeply about the projects in front of them. Few things illustrate these efforts better than with the squadron’s involvement in Wreaths Across America, an annual ceremony when members of the military lay wreaths on the graves of deceased veterans to honor their memory and service.
A majority of the $18,000 raised for the 2018 ceremony came from the stalwart fundraising efforts of six cadets who spent every weekend in November, including Thanksgiving weekend, soliciting donations outside local businesses for eight to nine hours a day. The cadets were enthusiastic about honoring deceased veterans and educating the public, and developed greater pride in themselves and the military through their efforts, Hildebrand said.
Last year was the fourth such event organized by the Ephrata squadron, and each year they strive to expand the event and get their communities involved in their efforts. The first year, the squadron laid 100 wreaths. The second year, around 200. The third year, just under 400. By year four, though, the cadets laid down almost 1,200 wreaths, and next year they hope to double that number.
As much as these types of volunteer service projects are designed to help shape the cadets, they have also been an incredibly effective recruitment tool. While her squadron had six cadets last November to 20 currently, with new ones coming in every week, and though many of her incoming kids have needed extra support and discipline, the challenge has been a fulfilling one for Hildebrand.
“If we can turn just one kid around, then we’ve accomplished everything,” Hildebrand said.
Emry Dinman can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.