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Annual Campout For Kids Honors Fallen Cop's Legacy

By Quinn Ford | August 24, 2013 8:35am
 Police hosted an overnight camp out for kids at the fourth annual "Peace in the Park after Dark," an event to honor Officer Thomas Wortham IV.
Peace in the Park After Dark
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CHATHAM — Retired police Sgt. Thomas Wortham says he hears the same question almost everyday: What can be done to stop the violence in Chicago?

His answer is simple.

"Give kids attention. Give them love," he says.

And at Friday night's "Peace In the Park After Dark" campout, more than 130 kids got just that, Wortham said.

For the fourth year in a row, police officers camped out with children at Nat King Cole Park in the city's Chatham neighborhood. Kids took part in everything from archery to hula hoop contests to roasting s'mores before spending a night under the stars.

The event honored Wortham's son, Chicago Police Officer Thomas Wortham IV, who was shot and killed near the park in 2010 when a group of men tried to steal his motorcycle.

Wortham's mother, Carolyn Wortham, said one aim of the campout was to help kids form a relationship with police officers, so they can see them not just as police but as "fathers and brothers and neighbors."

Another aim, she said, was to bring children from different neighborhoods together.

"As you make new friends, you're going to see that you are more alike than you are different, even if you live on the other side of town," she told the kids.

The children, ages 10 to 17, came from different neighborhoods across the South Side, including Englewood, Avalon Park, Auburn Gresham as well as Chatham.

The event also brought out some city officials, including Ald. Roderick Sawyer, First Deputy Police Superintendent Alfonza Wysinger and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Jalen Summers, a 15-year-old from Chatham, said he had one word in mind when his grandmother told him about the campout.

"Lame," he said with a laugh, but added his opinion had changed by Friday night. "It's been fun."

Eulice Hudson, another 15-year-old from Chatham, said it was his third year coming to the event.

"I didn't think it was gonna be this many kids here, and every year it just gets more and more," he said.

Organizers said the event has nearly doubled since its first year. Police Lt. Dwayne Betts, who came up with the idea for the campout, said the growth has made him proud.

Betts said although he never knew Wortham personally, he worked with Wortham's father in the department and felt motivated to do something after the officer's death.

Betts, who is also a Cub Scout leader, said camping seemed perfect because it's an experience many city kids do not get.

"There's no walls. There's no boundaries," he said. "Tonight, some of these kids are going to take home a very important experience."

Those who knew Wortham said the campout at Cole Park is a fitting tribute because the 30-year-old loved the park. Wortham, also a military veteran who served two tours of duty in Iraq, grew up across the street from Cole Park and served on the Park Advisory Council.

Carolyn Wortham said her son "always wanted the kids of today to be able to experience the fun times he had at Cole Park when he was younger." After his death, the playground was named after him, also in tribute.

For Betts, the event also highlights Chatham's longtime reputation as a quiet, middle-class neighborhood, something he said has been unfairly tarnished in recent years by news of violent crime.

And Sgt. Thomas Wortham said Friday neighbors are "holding on" and "fighting for" Chatham's reputation and said part of that fight is ensuring kids and adults in the neighborhood know each other.

That is something the campout can do, as well as show kids some love, Wortham said.

"A lot of kids grow up without getting love. This is love. This is showing the kids that people care about them," he said. "That's all we have to do."

-Wendell Hutson contributed reporting